Thursday, 12 January 2017

"Sing some more, and we'll travel on" - a review of David Bowie's Lazarus

In the last year of his life, David Bowie fulfilled his lifelong dream of writing a musical. With the help of co-writer Enda Walsh, producer Robert Fox and director Ivo van Hove, it played off Broadway in New York from December 2015 to January 2016, then moved to London's King's Cross Theatre that November. It finishes on 22 January and is now sold out, but I'm thankful to have seen it twice, and I think it's his crowning achievement. For all that it's inevitably a collaboration with a broad group of creative people, it may even be the best work he's ever done.

And yet, out of all his works, Lazarus is probably the hardest for me to write about. It's easy to say that it's a sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Walter Tevis novel which was adapted into a 1975 film starring Bowie as the central character. Lazarus shows us the alien Thomas Newton (played marvellously by the American actor Michael C Hall) forty years later. Having long failed in his mission to take water back to his drought-stricken home planet, he's holed up in a New York City apartment, addicted to gin and Twinkies. He's depressed and doesn't go out, reliant on his assistant Elly to keep him supplied and his home in some semblance of order. Deeply depressed because he's unable either to die or to go home, he's haunted by memories of his family light years away, and of his ex-girlfriend Mary Lou, who left him years ago. He's mentally falling apart, until a mysterious fourteen year old Girl, who remembers nothing about herself or her past, inexplicably arrives with her own mission. All she knows is that somehow, she has to help Thomas Newton.

Lazarus doesn't really have a conventional plot, but it has a story, which you have to kind of piece together yourself as it goes along. The story is Newton's journey from despair to hope, and to a kind of peace. But it's told almost like a dream (with a dream's unexpected shifts of character and mood); and along with Newton and Elly and Girl, there are several other characters with their own stories, who may or may not be real; they could be products of Newton's almost deranged mind. Even Girl may not be real; indeed, she's the character least likely to be, since most of the time only Newton can see her. But the mystery of her presence has another explanation, which she herself only realises near the end - and it's both a tragic and a deeply moving one.

If this sounds confusing, it is - at first. Several of the actors, in interviews, have suggested that it's best to simply sit and experience the play, without worrying too much about the story or what it “means”. This is good, because the experience itself is wonderful and there's a lot to enjoy. Firstly, of course, there's the music: about ten classic songs spanning the whole of Bowie's career, together with four which he wrote specially for the play (and they're not let downs by any means). The arrangements are crisp and tight, and gloriously sung, especially by Sophia Anne Caruso (still only fifteen years old) as Girl. Some songs, such as the recent Where Are We Now?, are very close in style and sound to the original, while others are so surprising that they sound virtually recomposed (I'd never realised before what a great song This Is Not America is! - or how relevant it feels to that country's situation now.) Like the play, they vary greatly in mood, from the tormented rage of Killing a Little Time to the upliftingly poppy Absolute Beginners. Even the vintage Changes sounds fresh and new, partly by shifting in mood more than the original, but also by being sung by a woman (Amy Lennox as Elly). And rather than sounding shoehorned into the play, each song expresses something about the character, characters or situation, heightening the emotions in the process. This is no jukebox musical; the songs are an inextricable part of the play.

Then there's the visual element, which is dazzling, considering there's hardly any set. Newton's flat is suggested by an unmade bed, a fridge, and a record player with two stacks of Bowie records! At the back of the stage, in the middle, is a white screen separating two big windows behind which the musicians play (almost unnoticed, the show itself being so mesmerising). The windows often show a New York skyline behind the musicians, at different times of day and night. On the screen in the middle, a dazzling succession of varied images is projected, often seeming to represent thoughts, images and memories in Newton's mind. This visual brilliance extends to the lighting, the colours, everything - it's amazing. I think David Bowie was to a large extent synaesthesic, as he said he could “see” music in his mind - the tone colours and textures automatically finding visual equivalents. Sometimes he even sketched or painted it, to help himself find what an album or song needed. This shows in Lazarus, which is truly a multimedia theatre experience - involving character, dialogue, action, music, lighting, film, abstract art and a rocket which Girl outlines on the floor with masking tape! I've truly never seen anything like it.

And I've barely yet mentioned the actors, characters, or the wonderful script, which is often moving and sometimes pretty funny. The first time I saw Lazarus I was near the back, and couldn't fully see the stage. I felt a bit distanced from the characters, both physically and emotionally, so much of the impact of the play was of a visceral kind; it was a lot just to take in the visuals and music. Because of this I ultimately decided to see it again, and from the middle of the second row I could see everything. I could see the entire stage, only about fifteen feet away. I could see the faces and emotions of the characters - Newton's torment, Elly's longing and confusion, and the pathetic yet oddly charismatic serial killer Valentine, played brilliantly by Michael Esper. The story made more sense; I could see the significance (not necessarily “meaning”) of events and characters. Michael Esper gave a thrilling performance of Valentine's Day (helped by brilliant lighting, visual and sound effects). Michael C Hall was very moving and, for me, made Newton more sympathetic than Bowie himself did in the original film. And most of all, his developing relationship with Girl was deeply touching. In the emotionally complex staging of Absolute Beginners, Newton sings the song platonically to Girl, while a confused Elly (who cannot see Girl) sings it romantically to Newton. Despite Elly's pain, the song marks a crucial point in the development of Newton and Girl's relationship, which is so central to the story and its eventual resolution. Whether she's real or not, Girl is who and what Newton needs to help him find peace, and once he realises that he has hope. He confesses to Valentine that it doesn't matter if she's real or not - he has something to live for. And I'll never forget the compassion and emotion in Caruso's incredibly expressive eyes, or the poetic strangeness of her vocal delivery at times (almost a little alien herself). Or the sudden expression of love and affection (which I won't give away!) at the end of Life on Mars? Hall is already, justifiably, a star of both TV and stage, and I'll be very surprised if Caruso doesn't have a similarly bright career ahead of her, having seen the depth and variety of which she's capable while still a minor. She brings not only heartbreaking poignancy but also feistiness to the role of Girl - and is as funny in some moments as she's convincingly confused or frightened in others.

The climax of the play brings resolution both to Newton's conflicts and to his relationship with Girl. It's hard to even give a sense of it without plot spoiling, but I'll try. Girl remembers who she is and why she's there - not only to help Newton but to ask him to help her. Like him, she is lost between two worlds (No Plan, the wonderful new song that Bowie wrote for her, gives an early hint of this). And ultimately, it’s the murderous Valentine who unexpectedly helps Newton to free her. If Valentine too exists in Newton's mind, it's almost as if Newton has to accept and turn towards the rage in himself, before he can truly be free from his despair.

Although the ending is ambiguous, and like so much else, probably takes place only in his mind, I don't think it matters. What matters is that he finds peace; like the original Lazarus, he is reborn. And at the very end, Girl and Newton sing a song to each other, a very famous song, but completely changed in character so that it brings a feeling of ultimate rest at its close. It’s tender, playful and incredibly beautiful, with an unexpected and deeply appropriate change of two lines halfway through. Before Girl almost literally puts Newton to bed, and a final, very moving image is projected onto the screen.

Now I've seen a few live operas in my time, and I know that Bowie, for all his talent and influence, was no Mozart. But this ending reminds me of the quiet emotional climaxes (similarly involving the love of two characters) that end two of Mozart's greatest stage works. I was moved by the end of Lazarus just as I was by those earlier experiences years ago. I felt myself choking up inside - and yes, I cried at the beauty of it.

Lazarus, of course, has added resonance because (along with the album Blackstar) it was Bowie's final creative work. Strangely, it seems to complement Blackstar; while the album is mostly dark and introspective, Lazarus, for all its juxtaposed moods from nightmare to comedy, feels ultimately like a celebration. As I said at the start, it may even be Bowie's greatest achievement. Despite the fact that it's a play, involving many collaborators from the actors/singers to co-writer and director, the whole experience feels like Bowie, as much as any of his albums do. Partly, of course, it's the songs! Bowie worked closely with the arranger Henry Hey, and with the three actors Hall, Esper and Caruso, all of whom came to London from the original New York cast. Caruso says that Bowie gave her advice on the phrasing of Life on Mars?, as he went to rehearsals when he was well enough (the cast apparently had no idea he was ill). So he was closely involved, and it's not surprising that the experience felt as if Bowie was being channelled through the efforts of everyone involved. I've been a fan since 1982, so I should know! :-)

The play was also imbued with many of Bowie's preoccupations, familiar to fans of his earlier work. Serial killing, and a fourteen year old girl, are the subject of his great 1995 album Outside. Isolation, loneliness and addiction are familiar themes throughout his work, and Bowie's identification with Newton is well known; during rehearsals, he once accidentally referred to Newton as “me”. As in the original film, Newton seems to express something for those of us who are human on the outside but feel alien on the inside - strangers in a strange land. (Many fans felt that way about his work from the beginning; it was as if he gave young people permission to be odd, to be different, and because of the lasting quality of his best music, those fans now span the generations). In Lazarus, I wonder if Newton's retreat from the world reflects Bowie's well known attitudes to fame and celebrity. In 2004, Bowie retreated into ordinary life (he too lived in a New York penthouse!) after a heart attack curtailed an exhausting world tour. He drew and painted, he watched movies, he enjoyed life in a loving family. And he watched and helped his daughter grow up - a daughter who at the time he wrote Lazarus, was the same age as Girl. It was while Lazarus was in production that Bowie realised he would soon have to say goodbye to his own Girl.

There's a lovely moment in the play where Newton asks Girl (who says she knows everything about him) to tell him about a good memory he has - something he has never told anyone. And Girl radiantly describes him climbing a hill with his daughter (“about my age”) on their home planet, to sit and look at the stars. He'd tell her stories about flying through space. And when he stopped talking, his daughter would say to him, “Speak some more, and we'll travel on.”

On 7 December 2015, David Bowie attended the premiere of Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop. One of the actors described the shining happiness on his face as he joined them to take their bows. It was the final public appearance of a man who loved to work outside of the cultural mainstream (and Lazarus is pretty outside!), yet was only rarely outside of the public consciousness.

Just over a month later he died, surrounded by his family. Maybe to travel on, or maybe not. If he did, I hope he found peace.

After the premiere, 7 December 2015. Photographer unknown.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

"Something happened on the day he died..." Some Personal Thoughts about David Bowie, a Year after His Death.

A picture from Bowie's last official photo shoot. © Jimmy King, 2015

I'm writing this at the other end of the year - actually in 2017, but at the end of the year that's passed since David Bowie died. By common consensus, 2016 was a pretty dreadful twelve months, in which frightening political events and trends seemed reflected by the deaths of so many artists and celebrities who were - are - important to so many of us. In my personal experience, though, the only one of those deaths that affected me deeply, almost as if he were someone I knew, was the first. David Bowie died on 10 January 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th studio album, Blackstar. Even I, a fan since 1982, was surprised by the media shockwave that resulted, and the genuine grief that it triggered in many, including at least one of my friends. It's almost as if I assumed I was the only one who felt that way about him. And I think that's because when I first discovered him in my teens, I really was the only person I knew who did. I was that socially isolated, although starting to emerge at last from several years of self-protective hibernation.

Except for the first few weeks, though, I haven't felt as sad about David's loss as others seem to have done. I haven't passed through any grieving process - not unless it's a very unusual one. I do still feel strange when I reflect that there's no longer a David Bowie in the world, because it seems so counterintuitive. There's always been David Bowie; he was always alive, seemed so full of life. Perhaps that's why, during the past decade, I always got a shock when I saw recent pictures of him, and realised that he was looking his age. It must have reminded me that one day he was going to be gone. And that's the counterintuitive part: he seemed eternally young, so vitally and creatively alive. Even if he wasn't always making albums, he was still around somewhere. Mostly he was in Greenwich Village, or in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock. But he was also in my head, even though I didn't think of him that often. Because he was there - very much so - at the beginning of my delayed social adolescence, when I began to thaw out and live and, to some extent at least, join my teenaged peers in the human race. In the Bowie-shaped cluster of neurons that forms my deepest memories of him, “it's always 1982” ('Slip Away’, from the Heathen album). Or it was until recently.

The following is a collection of bits I wrote in the weeks following his death - on Facebook mostly, sometimes shared privately with just one friend or two. I hoped eventually to write something bigger about Bowie's importance in my life, so I kept them, pasted into a draft email to myself. They're organised only by chronology, slightly edited, and form the first part of my reflective/celebratory piece about this unique and extraordinary popular artist. The second part will be a personal response to experiencing (twice) his crowning creative achievement: the almost indescribable multimedia musical play, Lazarus.

But for now, back to the start of that collective annus horribilis.

16 January 2016

The memories David's death stir in me are rather lonely ones, I guess. I never dressed as Ziggy, I was never a space cadet, I never went to clubs. But I discovered Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust at the age of 16, and soon after that Let's Dance came out. I was hooked, and rapidly became what must have been the biggest Bowie fan in St Albans. I could not have been more obsessed. Mostly I just listened compulsively to his albums in my bedroom, but I also remember the multiple groans in the 6th form common room every time I put Low or Young Americans on the record player (yes, those were the days of 6th forms, and common rooms, and record players - and people talked instead of being absorbed in their phones!) I remember one girl, though, appreciating it. "Everyone else plays such rubbish, and here you are educating us with David Bowie!"

I didn't have many friends back then; I was slowly coming out of my shell. Looking back though, it was a time when I was beginning to feel really alive, and Bowie was the soundtrack to that. Whether I was stamping my feet alone at bus stops and singing Starman into the night, or going crazy to Modern Love at the first teenage parties I ever got invited to. Although he's done a whole lot more since then (including much that he's still not given enough credit for), I forever associate Bowie's music with that time, when I hardly listened to anything else.

After that my musical loves became vastly more diverse. But apart from the classical composers, probably only Kate Bush has struck such deep chords in me, to the point of real obsession. I don't listen to either of them as much now (there's too much other music!), but I would never dream of purging them from my music collection - there isn't a single album by either of them that I haven't bought and played - apart from The Next Day, which was a birthday gift.

Blackstar arrived from Amazon a week ago; I listened to it once and on a first impression thought it was Bowie's best since Heathen. The following day my partner told me the news of his death. Even though I'd felt he was suddenly looking his age, it was still kind of hard to believe he was dead - partly because he was always moving. Musically, stylistically, physically, in his thoughts, interests and words. Now that he's been cremated, it feels even more final. He's really gone - except for the songs, which are quite a legacy.

25 January 2016

I was reading his Wikipedia entry last night and it gave me a weird feeling that it was all written in the past tense. Facebook seems much quieter about him now, but he's still very frequently on my mind. Listened to Blackstar again yesterday, planning on Station to Station today. I don't feel particularly sad anymore except when I think of the fear he must have felt at times, and Lexi still really a child. In an interview in 2002 he said that leaving his daughter was one of the things he feared about death. But I just feel like playing his music, celebrating his creativity. Something which I haven't done in a long time.

His death has made me think of mortality generally, including my own. How little time might be left. I'll be 69 in only 19 years, which will probably fly by. And I'm sure David planned on having a few more years left yet. It's all a bit scary when I think about it.

“Love me, love me, love me, love me, say you do…”

The Station to Station cover of Wild is the Wind meant a great deal to me as a young adult. I was in love, and so incapacitatingly shy from years of bullying and other stuff that I couldn't say anything to the girl I yearned for. This song was a kind of safety valve for some of my feelings; if not for music, I don't know what I'd have done. As for Bowie's interpretation, I still think it's amazing that he should choose an old standard to close such a modern sounding, forward looking album - and that his vocal is absolutely wonderful! I used to sometimes come across people who said that Bowie "couldn't sing", and I'd play songs like this and think, “wha-aaaa...???”. The album recording is probably the most moving and also the most technically stunning piece of singing he ever did.

I've been thinking they must surely release the songs he wrote for that hypothetical Blackstar follow up. In his last months he was working at top speed, creating an album and collaborating on a musical, and hoping to finish yet another album. He also curated several records to be released after his death. I'm sure he cared about his legacy, and will have done this with as much care as he could manage, given the limited time he had. But he had so much he wanted to write and so little time. And a colleague of his said that in the last weeks he could occasionally see fear in his eyes.

1 February 2016

I've often been curious, and a bit confused, about Bowie's spiritual beliefs. Throughout his adult life he maintained an interest in Buddhism - a non-theistic religion, of course. For many people it's not even a religion as such, but more a kind of psychology or way of life - a set of practices and ethics. But Bowie so often contradicted himself about religion, sometimes saying he absolutely believed in God, and then later in life describing himself as "almost an atheist". I get the sense he was often not sure himself what he believed, if anything. I do think he was on a spiritual search for something, even though he had no truck with the dogma of organised religion. But I'd love to know if he finally found certainty or peace at the end (even though it's none of my business, I guess!), because he seemed afraid towards the end. I wonder if Iman, as a Muslim, believes she will "see" him again, or not. Or whether he expected to "see" her again, and if that brought him comfort. Or what his children believe. I would imagine they didn't bring up Lexi as a Muslim, but let her make up her own mind; that sounds like what he'd do. Does she believe she'll "see" her dad again one day? I don't know why, but I've been thinking about these things.

24 February 2016

Oh, V- ! Of all the people I know who've been affected by David's death, I feel you've been affected the most deeply. I hope it gets easier soon. {{{BIG HUGS}}}

I'm still very moved by his loss, and sad when I think about it - and sometimes I'm caught off guard by it and find it hard to believe that there is no longer David Bowie in this world. What I don't understand is how and why my interest in him and his music has been rekindled to such an extent. After all, the media hoo haa has died down, so the bandwagon has long passed. Before his death, I had never got rid of his albums, but I listened to them only rarely. I was the most obsessed fan I've ever known at one time, but that was over 30 years ago. Now I'm playing some of the albums again, watching interviews, reading articles... Most days I have one of his songs in my head at least some of the time (at this moment it's Golden Years). I find him gorgeously sexy (at least from 1977 onwards), even though I'm very heterosexual. And for the first time, really, I'm finding myself interested in his private life with Iman and Lexi, which is none of my business. And wondering how he was feeling about dying - someone who seemed to love living so much, and now had an extra person to live FOR. Wondering about all the musical and lyrical allusions on Blackstar and what some of them mean. My friends on Facebook must wonder why on earth I'm sharing so many photos of him. And I'm really not sure myself! Except that I know I'm the kind of person who goes through crazes and obsessions.

It sounds much more difficult for you, I know. I'm here if you need me, is what I want to say. xxxx

I'm not sure if I was aware, all those years ago at the age of 17, that he was the poster boy for odd kids. I knew that I was 'different’, that I didn't fit in, but I was too innocent and still coming out of my shell to really be aware of all the things he was kicking against and attracted to. I found that out much more recently by watching interviews. I guess the recurrent themes of loneliness, isolation and alienation in his lyrics must have registered to an extent - but I mean, his lifestyle (sexually promiscuous until his second marriage) was the complete opposite of mine! I didn't even have a kinda sorta girlfriend until I was 27! Perhaps that's partly why I was happy that Bowie had Iman and Lexi in his later life. The longing for fulfilled monogamy and family - that I could relate to. As Joni Mitchell once sang (something like): "fuck your strangers - don't it leave you on the empty side?"

My obsession, at 17, was the music. I was just thrilled by it. Also, to some degree, that sexual charisma. I may have been responding on some level to the context and subtext too, but if so then I think I was unconscious of it. He was just such a thrilling singer and performer, such an extraordinarily beautiful looking man, and the songs were magnificent enough for me to know them inside out and yet not get bored with them. And to a great extent, they still are.


It's the end of the year again now, the beginning of 2017, the anniversary fast approaching. And reading that last paragraph again, I'm sure that I always was responding to that incredible sexual charisma of his. I may not have been able to identify with his lifestyle, but there was a big part of me that wanted, however hopelessly, to be David Bowie. His beauty, his confidence… I had no idea, back in 1983, that he was actually quite a shy person - something that still feels unbelievable to me in a way, but which he was happy to admit to in later life, explaining that that was why he initially needed to create personas to express himself, especially on stage. Later on he felt more comfortable with himself and let 'David Bowie’ become one one big persona, separating it clearly from his private life, in which he remained David Jones. During the decade-long sabbatical from his career that was prompted by his 2004 heart attack, for the first time he spent almost his whole time being David Jones again - making charcoal drawings at home, watching movies, walking his daughter to school. He described aging as “an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been”. And in a statement a few years ago which really touched me when I heard it, he said, “Much to my surprise, I'm actually very like my dad”.

Perhaps my own growing up, together with my alienation from his earlier promiscuous lifestyle, is why I remain deeply attracted to him but to the older Bowie, not the androgynous Ziggy or the sinister Thin White Duke, or even the blond haired, Armani suited stadium megastar of 1983 (he later described the eighties wryly as “my Phil Collins years”). For me right now, Bowie was at his most beautiful fifteen years ago, when he released what I think is one of his best albums, Heathen. That album showed that as he aged he was already pondering the abyss of death, but on stage and in interviews he looked gorgeous, and somehow fully relaxed with himself. He had a new daughter, who he was clearly and touchingly besotted with. And both his thoughtfulness and his sense of humour were as wonderful as ever. That humour is something not everyone knows about, because it's only intermittently present on his albums, but it was witty, quick-firing, free associative, often bizarre, and very, very funny. Check his interviews from the time on YouTube, and contrast them with the awkward, defensive, cocaine-addled interviewee of 1975. It's like two completely different people.

But now it's 2017, and David has been dead for very nearly a year. I'm still sharing daily pictures of him on Facebook. I still have his songs in my head, almost every day, though I play his albums less often. Blackstar, with a few slight reservations, still feels as challenging and forward-looking as one could hope for, and (especially in the title song) deeply moving as well. I'm still, for some reason, not mourning him in the usual sense, though I do feel sad when I reflect that he's no longer with us. Instead I remain very much preoccupied with him, but mostly in a celebratory sense. After all, I never met David Jones, but David Bowie is in a real sense still alive - in his music, his films, his words, his interviews, and far more accessible now than in pre-internet days. I do wonder why I haven't been as grief stricken as so many other fans have been - what that says about me? But how I feel is how I feel. I love Bowie and I miss his living personal presence in the world; his death was definitely too soon. But he still sends thrills of excitement through me, more than anything else.

Always a bit ritualistic about dates, for some time I've wanted to round off these twelve months with some symmetry and closure. I could have just written this, played Blackstar on his anniversary, and left it at that. But in his own final year, David Bowie brought to fruition something so wonderful, so fractured and disorienting and glorious and fun, simultaneously forward-looking and also a summing up, that it was almost like looking back at his whole creative development (including his painting, acting and video work) through a kaleidoscope. It was like getting another album to complement Blackstar, yet in some ways it was more than an album - so very, very much more. And when I experienced it the second time I was moved to tears. That, for me, marked the end of the year - both 2016, to which it finally brought a sense of peace, and the year between his death and anniversary. That amazing, tortured, funny, nightmarish, compassionate, joyful and celebratory creation - Bowie's crowning achievement - is Lazarus.

On with the theatre review!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness - A Book Review

Toni Bernhard with her puppy, Scout

Toni Bernhard's new book is her third, and I love them all. But this one is my favourite. Even more than usual, I felt while reading it that she was speaking to me directly. Not all writers have this gift.

Written in the easy, flowing style so typical of Toni's writing, it's astonishingly comprehensive, covering everything from the everyday difficulties of living with chronic pain or illness, to help for the friends and families of sufferers to understand what it's like to live with chronic illness, day upon day, year upon year. This was important to me, as I expect to many other sufferers, because virtually everyone I know in what Toni describes as the "parallel world" of the chronically sick finds it hard to deal with insensitive comments made by (often well-meaning) people who are ignorant of what their struggles involve.

As with Toni's previous books, it's clearly written from a Buddhist perspective. Here though, there seems less emphasis on formal Buddhist practices and philosophy, and perhaps a little more on practical ways of coping and "living well". Toni still introduces practices that have helped her to find equanimity and strength throughout the 14 years (so far) of her illness, and she's totally disarming in her openness about her struggles and occasional failures to respond to them with equanimity. There is not a trace of self pity, however. Much of the book seems written with a view to empathising and feeling compassion for her fellow sufferers and their carers. There are also delightful touches of humour. But it remains a very practical book, and she really does show that finding equanimity, retaining the aspects of life that can still give us pleasure even though we're ill, and being compassionate with ourselves (either in response to physical suffering, or when we fail to respond to it in helpful ways), can help to enrich our lives and reduce the mental suffering that so often accompanies chronic illness. Toni's compassion, wisdom and practical experience of living with illness, shine through every page.

I cannot stress enough how easy this book is to read. The chapters are many and short, each dealing with a different aspect of living with chronic pain and illness. This may be important for many readers, because pain and illness affect concentration for a lot of sufferers - so the shorter the chapters, the easier the read. Each chapter is also helpfully subdivided. This also has the benefit of making it easy to dip in to the book and pick out sections that may be relevant to difficulties we're experiencing at that time.

As with her previous books, Toni's loved ones make appearances in the many little stories that illustrate her own experiences and difficulties. Especially when you've read all three books, you may come to feel you almost know Toni's husband, children, granddaughters and even her playful Labrador puppy. These personal appearances never intrude, however. They always help to make some point clearer, by bringing experiences from her real life to show how a life that's been turned upside down can still be responded to in ways that help to reduce suffering. Toni is also honest in recognising that in certain respects she's lucky. Many chronically ill people have no partner, no family, no home of their own, no income, or (in America) little or no health insurance. She recognises that their own experiences may be much more difficult. All this, together with her disarming honesty about her own difficulties, reveal a woman who feels very much a part of the chronic illness community, rather than an expert dispensing wisdom from on high. Although, as I said earlier, she is indeed very wise!

This is one of the very best 'self help' books I've ever read. Reading it brought me comfort, help and companionship during a difficult pain flare. I've lived with chronic pain for eleven years now, and Toni's latest book is one of those that will never be far from my bedside.

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Beautiful, Un-Pornographic, Un-Idealised, Life-Affirming Female Nude!

Aleah Chapin: Auntie (2012)
This is a painting that the prestigious, World-Renowned Art Critic Brian Sewell labelled 'repellent - a grotesgue medical record'. It's by the 28 year old American artist Aleah Chapin, and with it she won the BP Portrait Award in 2012. Clearly to some minds, a woman is no longer a human being once she is (a) over sixty years of age, and/or (b) naked. I wonder if the model herself had to suffer the hurt and indignity of hearing Sewell's words? I hope not.
I'm reminded of a few responses I had when I started posting female nudes on my Facebook timeline (looking at art has given me increasing happiness over the past year). It really got me thinking, and I realised that subject matter doesn't matter as long as it's truthful. It makes no difference whether an artist paints a landscape, a still life, a building, a village street, an animal (human or otherwise), a rich socialite or a poor labourer, a man or a woman, a person wearing clothes or a person who is naked. It's all life. Art paints life, and often finds beauty where the devourers of fashion magazines do not.
The only reason I tend to share female nudes on Facebook is purely subjective preference. As a heterosexual male, I tend to be more aware of their beauty, so they tend to move me more. Also, many of my favourite artists tended to paint female nudes rather than male. It's true that I find many of them sexy, but I don't respond to them merely with my genitals, as I might if they were porn; instead, they fill my whole body, mind and being with a kind of life-affirming joy. But I can still appreciate the beauty of male bodies, and would be interested and happy to see their portrayal in art posted on my friends' timelines.
Zinaida Serebriakova: Portrait of Ekaterina
Serebriakova, Daughter of the Artist (1928)
Truthful art is not porn (at times the division can be a little fuzzy, but then I would argue that the art in question is not being truthful in the deepest sense; instead, however talented, the artist is helping to perpetuate myths or lies about women - or indeed men!) Likewise, photoshopped fashion images are not art, because they are lying too. They are not depicting life on any level. On the other hand, I find this portrait (and a nude can still be a portrait, as my favourite artist Zinaida Serebriakova showed) touching, beautiful and true to life. It's not a lie. This woman is gorgeous and a real person, and I'm happy to display Aleah Chapin's work of art on my timeline - and on this blog. 
I'm also happy to have discovered a still living artist (20 years younger than me!) whose paintings I like. Unless my friends stop following me, of course, I think they'll be seeing more of Chapin's work on my timeline! 

Sorry if this reads like a rant, but I feel an ongoing frustration both about the degrading and damaging lies perpetrated by photoshopped nudes, as well as the attitude that regards the female nude in art as inevitably pornographic. I love art that makes me happy (hence Renoir, Sargent and Serebriakova), that makes me feel good about life. This painting does just that. 

Friday, 12 September 2014


This is different from anything I’ve posted previously on this blog. It’s edited from a Facebook status update (on 11 September) that grew and grew – surely the longest I’ve ever shared. Some may even feel that it’s incompatible with a blog that tends to reflect a Buddhist (though secular) outlook – I don’t know. I just know that I wanted to share. I’ve seen and read about so much bloodshed in the past fifteen years. Certainly, I regard the events of 11th September 2001 as a terrible atrocity. My heart tells me that, and international law tells me that. But I am tired of reading those words, ‘Never Forget’, as if the million or more deaths that followed, supposedly in response to that criminal act, are less important – less worthy of remembrance. To me, 20th March is the anniversary of a far bigger tragedy than 9/11, and an even greater crime. So I want to share the feelings, some of the thoughts behind that remembrance. I also think that these feelings spring from the same part of me that’s attracted to Buddhist ethics and practices. I kind of float in and out of Buddhism just as I float in and out of a very limited form of peace activism. But the source of both in me, the core values of justice and peace, the horror of bloodshed and inhumanity, remains constant.

TRIGGER WARNING: Although I’ve tried not to be gratuitous in describing the visceral effects of war, there may be passages that would be traumatic or harmful for some people to read. One particular sentence comes to mind. It was important to me to express, however briefly, something of the reality of war, as an antidote to the newspeak through which it is often presented. Clearly, however, I don’t want my words to hurt anyone, so it’s up to the reader’s best judgement as to whether to read further.

Thirteen years ago, when the US was attacked by mostly Saudi Arabian criminals, I tended to see war as something that happened on the news. I didn't like it, but I didn't feel very personally involved. By 2003, when mostly American criminals attacked Iraq, I was politicised - and like at least a million other people in the UK, I took to the streets.

After becoming chronically ill a year later with neuropathic pain, I spent several years campaigning against various related War in Terror issues, but mostly the war on Iraq. I had to give it up eventually because the continuing sense of horror, and the pressures I was putting on myself, became too much for me and I broke down. But for a couple of years I kept myself aware and informed, and I felt very emotionally involved. When people questioned my views I defended them, arguing often and at great length. I tried to be logical and I knew I was much more knowledgeable than I'd used to be, but the passion always came through. And of course, I got nowhere. People who believed in war continued to do so, and my mind didn't change either.

Now, and especially since Israel's latest barbaric assaults on Gaza, I feel like I can hardly be bothered to discuss it. I've seen and read about so much insanity, cruelty and horror, that I don't have much respect left for the views of people who defend, say, the Iraq War, or Israel's slaughter of the Palestinians. I even find it a bit difficult to want to stay friends with people who espouse such views. I know, of course, that they have a moral and legal right to express them, and much of my peace activism was concerned with defending the right to free speech. I know that it's a fact of life that my friends and I aren't going to agree on everything, and that in some ways this is a good thing. But increasingly, I seem to have no respect for pro-war views. I mean, for frack's sake, have people never heard of international law, or the UN Charter???

International law is meant to protect all of us from the chaos, the slaughter and the 'scourge of war'. The UN Charter permits going to war only in very rare and desperate circumstances. It's not okay, for instance, to respond to terrorist attacks by fighting a war that causes suffering and death to millions of people who had nothing to do with those attacks. That simply trashes the memory of the victims of 9/11 in the worst way imaginable. And international humanitarian law declares that in those rare circumstances where war is necessary, it's a crime to target civilians or civilian infrastructure, no matter what the reason or provocation. It is never, ever okay to not discriminate between a military enemy and innocent civilians. It is never, never, NEVER okay to murder children!

In reality, and increasingly it seems, war never follows the rules laid out in the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. It sometimes seems to have good intentions, but those are almost always based on lies, lies used to justify wars that shouldn't even be taking place. And no military, anywhere, seems to translate international humanitarian law into practice. Whole suburbs or even towns are flattened in order to kill a few terrorists. In the case of Iraq, a whole country was virtually destroyed. Large parts of Gaza look like Hiroshima after the bomb, and little Palestinian girls are decapitated (aren't we supposed to be better than ISIS?), disembowelled or, in one photograph that I can't forget, have the back half of their skulls blown off. Sometimes the military gets its man (and sometimes not), but it often takes a hundred or a thousand more people with him. Some estimates suggest that a million Iraqi people died as a direct result of the 2003 invasion. Women get killed. Old people with dementia get killed. Children get killed. Babies get killed. It's a wonder that every single person in those countries doesn't hate us. It would be understandable if they did.

I'm sick and tired of it. I'm sick of nice, sane, friendly people defending war in terms of 'security' or 'freedom'. War as it is fought today is obscene. It is streets filled with burning flesh, blood and intestines. It is real people, REAL CHILDREN, screaming in fear and pain. It is never fought with good cause, and is never conducted in as way that protects innocent people and adheres to international law. There is no such thing as a ‘surgical strike’ - the war on Gaza demonstrates that. War is terrible, unjust suffering inflicted on human beings by other human beings. It is sick and evil and it can almost never be justified. The pilots who brought down the World Trade Centre thirteen years ago were criminals, not an army! The fact that something needed to be done did not mean it was okay to invade, occupy and flatten countries. It's never remotely okay to kill children, no matter what the provocation. 

I can no longer feel bothered to argue with people. Anyone who thinks these atrocities are justified by 9/11 is either ignorant, unaware or has no moral centre left. People justify Israel's actions in the last few months even though 500 children were killed, and thousands more injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, orphaned or traumatised. I don't even want to speculate about the number of kids killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. And I am losing tolerance for people who defend these things. It’s not as if the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions aren't available online for everyone to see!

Rest in peace, all you thousands of victims of 9/11. Rest in peace, all you millions of people who suffered in the subsequent War on Terror. Slaughtered civilians everywhere, your lives are all equal, even though it is constantly implied that they aren't. Your deaths aren't 'regrettable but justified' - they are terrible, wicked crimes.

I’m aware that I need to find a calmer, more ‘Buddhist’ place in me that can respond to these matters in a more centred way. But this is how I felt on 11th September 2014. This is my 9/11 piece for this year.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Cunning Foxes and Wily Coyotes

Lately I’ve been enjoying a film and a book, very different in character yet united by a common theme. The film is the animated comedy ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, directed by Wes Anderson and based on the story by Road Dahl. The book is called ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver, and although it’s a novel it cleverly integrates a lot of science, in a way that it always remains a part of the story rather than as an ‘expository lump’. I’m not a scientist, but Kingsolver is, and in this book one of her main characters is concerned with the role of predators in ecosystems. She studies coyotes.

This character, the aptly named Deanna Wolfe, tries passionately to explain to her lover, a farmer who hunts coyotes, why predators are more important to an environment than prey animals. In an ecosystem, there are relatively few ‘top predators’, such as bears and wolves, but lots of prey animals, from deer to mice and squirrels. Shooting most or all of the local top predators can have devastating effects beyond the loss of a single noble species, because the prey animals then multiply. Squashing spiders causes flies to increase; killing foxes can cause a plague of rabbits that eat the farmer’s carrots. The increase of the top predator’s natural prey can also crowd out other species, causing their extinction. Often we cannot predict the effects of wiping out a predator population, but it will nearly always cause problems for a previously stable ecosystem.

Deanna has written a thesis which attempts to explain why the wily coyote, despite being the ‘most despised animal’ in the United States, killed in hundreds of thousands every year (a horrible statistic), actually increases in numbers when it’s hunted. Something happens to their breeding. It may be that when their population is under threat, all of the females in a pack start to breed, instead of just the alpha female. Or perhaps something hormonal causes bigger litters. Either way, the efforts of farmers to protect their lambs seems to make the problem worse. Mothers, fathers, pups are killed for nothing – except for money: the annual ‘coyote bounty’.

This got me thinking about foxes. Here in a UK, a lot of people love foxes, but a lot of people hate them. This hatred and distrust has been coded in tradition (partly through ritualistic and cruel aristocratic ‘sport’) for centuries. They kill our chickens! farmers rage. They raid our wheelie bins! townies complain. This hatred is pointless, because there’s nothing to hate; it’s just a focus for people’s frustration, a scapegoating. In a touching scene in ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, Mrs Fox (rather sexily voiced by Meryl Streep) asks her husband, “Why did you lie to me, when you promised you’d never go raiding the farmer’s birds again?” Mr Fox (a characterful George Clooney) replies regretfully that he doesn’t know. “I’m a wild animal”, is all he can say. And of course, that’s right. How can we hate an animal for doing what it can’t help? Foxes just do what they do. They can’t make a choice to do something else.

In the British countryside and towns, foxes are the top predator. They are often called pests by angry homeowners, but they are not pests. By preying on rats, mice, even insects, they help keep down pest numbers. They do us a great service. True, they also kill birds, just like our lovable moggies do. But the RSPB insists that the decline of garden birds has more to do with our own effects on the ecosystem than with predation by cats and foxes. As so often, foxes are scapegoated for our own failings. 

Going back to the fictional Deanna’s thesis, I wondered if foxes also breed differently when they’re hunted. Who knows? – it may or may not be. But when culls have been tried in the past, they’ve always failed. Killing foxes in towns costs a lot of public money (which surely we can ill afford), yet despite the killings, foxes maintain a fairly stable population. Numbers don’t increase, but they stay roughly the same. It seems that foxes from the countryside or other town areas simply move into spaces left available by cullings, glad of the opportunities provided. Foxes are a wonderfully adaptable species, and we punish them for that adaptability, viewing it suspiciously as cleverness, slyness or cunning. Once again, this is scapegoating; foxes are too like us humans, the most adaptable mammal species on the planet. And we make them pay – but for nothing, it seems, than enjoyment, sport or revenge. Yes, some predators can be wiped out, and their loss is devastating beyond their extinction as a single species. But foxes’ numbers remain the same; coyotes’ actually increase. By killing them, we cause blood and suffering, and the starvation of cubs, all for nothing.

‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ ends with the foxes and other animals, having been persecuted throughout the film by the farmers, making a new home underneath a supermarket owned by the same farmers. Adaptable to the end, they have lost their home in the hill under the beautiful tree, but have made a new life where they can raid an unlimited supply of food every night. ‘Destroy’ them in one place, and they pop up in another. Mr Fox is fantastic indeed!

There’s no question whose side the film is on. It celebrates the wit, the audacity, the adaptability, and the cunning, of the fox. As we should do. And that goes for the wily coyote as well. We may have to put up with nuisances from both species, but hating them is just silly, and we need them too.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Waking Up to the End of Suffering

Having read Toni Bernhard’s first book, ‘How to Be Sick’, I was already acquainted with her beautiful and unique writing style. 'How to Wake Up', her second book, is no exception. The writing is clear, easy to read, almost conversational – and the content is wise, practical and helpful. Several friends of mine have noted that it feels as if Toni is speaking to them personally, and my own experience is just the same. As someone who has suffered from chronic pain for nearly ten years now, this is exactly the kind of book I need when I’m struggling with pain or anxiety. I’m used to keeping ‘How to Be Sick’ near me whenever I’m alone or in a flare-up, and it feels like having a supportive friend at my side just when I need one the most.

Partly this must be because Toni has herself suffered from an ME/CFS type of illness since 2001. I’d found the earlier chapters of ‘How to Be Sick’ almost heartrending to read, because in them she described powerfully (but without a trace of self-pity) the early stages of her illness, which began with severe flu-like symptoms during a trip of Paris. ‘How to Wake Up’ feels less personal, because she has already told that story. But she remains unafraid to illustrate the wise, Buddhist-inspired practices she describes, with stories from her own experience and those of her friends. This makes the book both touching and, in the end, more ‘real’, because you know the practices as well as the feelings she describes (common to so many of us in life’s difficulties, not just pain or illness) arise from real, personal experience. In both books, we feel we know not only her but also her husband and her hound dog, through so many of their ‘ten thousand joys and sorrows’ (to quote a Buddhist phrase). We know that we’re not alone in our own difficulties.

On a personal note, I also like the version of Buddhism that comes across in this book especially. If I’m a Buddhist at all then I’m a secular one, and whilst this book is in a broad sense spiritual, it doesn’t come across as at all religious. Toni doesn’t believe the Buddha’s enlightenment, or ‘awakening’, as she calls it, had anything supernatural about it, and she doesn’t allude to rebirth in a literal or religious sense either. So anyone who, like me, feels uncomfortable with ideas of ‘faith’ and the supernatural, need not worry here. These are practices that can be followed by anyone, whatever faith or lack of faith they happen to have.

Kim Stanley Robinson (the science fiction writer, no less!) endorsed this book by describing it as ‘something to cherish and practice’. I’d go even further and say that if anyone wanted a book that explains what the core practices and ethics of Buddhism are (without any of the religious accretions), they couldn’t do better than to read this book. The Buddha’s life’s work was about ‘suffering and the end of suffering’ (no matter what pain or difficulties we may experience), and in beautiful, practical ways, ‘the end of suffering’ is what this lovely book teaches so well.