Eminent Gurdjieffians Lord Pentland by James Moore

I would like to wave a flag of vested interest.  James Moore was a neighbour for a several years and I would often bump into him in the street, his tall, straight stance belying his age, head closeted in a Russian furry hat, as he cut a dashing figure in the grey, London street.

So it was with great excitement I finally got my hands on this book and it hasn’t disappointed.  Moore’s turn of phrase, his sharp wit is refreshing.  We start with Captain John Sinclair, father to Henry John (later to become Lord Pentland), as Moore shows us the upbringing that shaped and influenced his early years.  It’s an interesting book in that it misses out as much as it includes.  We know that as a boy he would have carefully removed his spearmint gum after the school run before going in for food, but the veil is drawn over his possible dalliances in later life.  Moore carefully pulls all the strands of Lord Portland’s life, weaving them together to produce a three-dimensional man; flick enticing ears and all.

As a writer, this is master-class in the craft and we can see why Moore is successful.  As an autobiography, with strong influences from Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Lord Pentland comes across as a man who managed, to Moore’s obvious bewilderment, to rise through the Gurdjieff hierarchy.  If you are reading this book, in the hope of an in-depth, voyeuristic look into the world of Gurdjieff, you will be disappointed.  Like looking down a kaleidoscope, Moore, twists the lens to show dazzling images, each arresting in themselves, but hiding as much as they show.

I highly recommend reading this book, not only for the history lesson, or for the deft touches of humour, but for the brilliant, observational imagery.

You also get to see a master at work.

My Family and other Camels

A friend recently asked me to write about my childhood.  My argument was, who would want to read it?  Mine was incredibly normal to me.  You had a camel that lived next door to your nursery didn’t you (maybe yours wasn’t called Humphrey)?  And your next door neighbour kept a cheetah, who would get stuck on the dividing wall, because although it was very good at getting up, it was too scared to jump down.

No?

OK, well maybe I’ve been very lucky with my childhood.  Having children of my own, I can see the advantages my brothers and I had.  Living in the Middle East, the weather meant that we’d be outside most of the time.  Even when the rains came, we would rush to the top of the flat roof to feel the fat, warm raindrops soak us, then madly brush the excess water off so that it didn’t leak through to our parents bedroom.  We were totally feral children, living within the confines of our house and garden, climbing the high walls, daring each other to run fast along them, before the adjoining neighbours spotted us and told our Mum.  I only fell off once, luckily onto the top of a tree, while my friends and brother laughed, then tried to pull me up before the owner (the one we were particularly trying to avoid) came out.  Then there was the junk-yard on one side that we were strictly forbidden to play in, but spent hours exploring.  I was a total tom-boy and mainly played with my brothers and their friends.  Yes I had barbies and dolls, but I was more inclined to build a house from lego or bricks (my Dad is an architect).  My younger brother was highly competitive, so we were always trying to out-do each other.  Who could run the fastest, climb the highest, jump the longest and it would be fair to say we did some crazy things.  When we weren’t at home or school, we were usually at the beach.  One of my earliest memories is being in the sea with bright orange armbands on, and it must have been early on, because I’m sure I was swimming around the same time I learnt to walk.

Umm Bab

Like Ratty and Mole, we messed about on boats, windsurfed and swam.  Then on Friday’s we’d pack up the car and head off as a family on some adventure through the desert to camp by the sea, look for prehistoric sharks teeth, desert roses, or just to climb and play on the sand-dunes.  When you slide down a sand-dune, it hums.  A low, long, haunting hum.  Unfortunately you would then have to climb back up, sand slipping under foot, in the boiling sun, but it was worth it.  We’d experiment sliding down in groups or at different times to make the sand sing.

This is Khalid and me playing on a sand dune. What you can’t tell is it’s about the size of a 3 storey house.

Sometimes we would meet bedouin and be invited to join them for a drink and a meal.  Most of these families now lived permanently in the city, but would return to their roots at the weekends or when the rains came.  Both my parents can speak Arabic (they took lessons when they first moved there, feeling it’s important to be able to speak the language of the country you live in), so they would sit and chat round the camp-fire (well, my mother mainly listened and translated for us if we were interested. Women weren’t supposed to sit with the men, but as she was a foreign guest, this was allowed).  We would play with the kids, a large pack of us running wild outside the camp, not being able to understand a word, but grinning like mad, making hand gestures and showing off doing cartwheels and other childish things.  Children there are seen as a blessing and are lavished in attention and love by the adults, and it showed on their faces.

I recently showed a picture of my school playing field to my children.  They were shocked that we played on a big pitch of rough sand and stones.  Maybe that’s why I love living in the country, I’m still constantly amazed by the greenery.  To me, it’s magical.

My two brothers playing in the desert

We moved back when I sixteen and I think it was for the best (although the sense of homesickness took a long time to dissipate and maybe why I took Middle Eastern Studies as a degree).  As a female, the Arab world is hard and limiting.  My oldest and best friends still live there, but I don’t have any contact with them.  They are half Australian, half Arab.  As Muslims, it would not be considered proper for me to contact my male friend.  He’s a married man and the last time they came over to London and we all met up, his wife was obviously put out that I knew so much about his past and that we were talking in English (she can’t).  His sister, who I’d spent years playing with and sharing secrets with, has married into a very strict family.  I’d have to go back to see her and I definitely couldn’t take my husband to visit her.  I also have the feeling that it would also put her in an awkward position within her new family to have a western woman come to see her.  Maybe that’s me making assumptions.

Would I go back?  I’m not sure.  It’s changed and modernised beyond anything I remember.

This is the link to my Dad’s website, so you can look at the country I remember.
http://catnaps.org/photo/qatar/qatpages/qatpage09.html

Dizzy, Dizzy Lexia

I’m coming out the cupboard (so to speak). I’m a writer and I’m dyslexic.  In the second year of university, at the age of 20, my tutor recommended that I should be tested as “my handwriting looked dyslexic”.  With great trepidation (I thought I had very neat handwriting), I went off to be tested.

A woman, her eyes sad behind the glasses, told me that I was definitely dyslexic and had the spelling age of a fourteen year old.  She couldn’t believe that I’d got so far through the education system without anyone noticing.  I could.  My teachers thought I was average (maybe even lower then average) and I’d quickly learnt to make myself invisible in the class.  My short term memory is shocking, so I assumed the low exam results were more to do with my habit of leaving it all to the last minute and cramming, rather then being thick.   I had to fight to be allowed to take A’level English, because I knew I could do it.

She asked me if I had read much as a child.  Well, I grew up in the Middle East, and my world was our house and the surrounding garden.  There wasn’t really any television, and my brothers were very annoying, so I read.  I read everything I could get my hands on.  I remember the day I realised that I’d systematically read every book in the school library and begging my mum to take me to the British Library.  I was lucky, it was something that my parents encouraged and when I wasn’t reading, I was making up my own stories.  Apparently that’s what helped me.

My vocabulary is extensive, although it might take me several attempts to spell a word correctly and who needs a thesaurus?!  I’ve had to learn synonyms for when I’m really stuck and can’t work out the beginning of a word to look it up in a dictionary, or the spellcheck just can’t work out what I’m trying to say.

I used to be ashamed of my label; my dirty secret.  However I’ve come to realise that it just means I see and hear the world slightly differently.  My brain records snap shots and stores them away neatly, ready to be recalled years later.  Flash-back twenty years ago, and one of my first times on the London Underground.  A large, heavy man shuffled onto our carriage, wearing a grubby, royal blue tracksuit bottoms, a grey tee-shirt and a knitted beige cardigan. His cardigan pockets were stuffed with coins, causing them to hang low, lower then the bottom of the garment, the woollen cable knit having been stretched far beyond its original shape.  As the tube sped and swayed between stations, the man would start arguments with his reflection, his voice rising higher and more heated,  beads of sweat starting to form on his forehead, just below the hairline, until we reached the next brightly lit stop, where he would return to placid, relative normality.  He was totally mesmerising, although in hindsight, it might have been wiser to change carriages as most of the other passengers did.

That was twenty years ago, but I can’t tell you how a pen materialised in my fridge yesterday.

When I’m not tired, usually with a glance, I can spot a spelling mistake.  The shape of the word causes discord on the page, but I do make mistakes with my own work.  You get too close.  So I have to write things, leave them a day and then go back to them with a new eye, but I don’t think I’m unique in that.  When I’m really tired, my speech deteriorates as well.  Today at the post office I couldn’t tell the man behind the counter that I wanted a book of six stamps.  It left me totally tongue-tied!  Luckily he knew what I meant and we had a laugh about it, but that’s why I write.  To take my time and choose the exact words.

Now it turns out, my middle child might well be dyslexic.  Part of me hesitates to label and she can’t be tested officially for another two years.  She’d struggled with reading, until her teacher gave her a coloured reading ruler.  Now she says she can see the words (instead of them floating around the paper).  Her older sister will read happily for hours and I’d always hoped all of them would do that, but maybe it’s not for her.  All three are strong individuals and have their own strong points.

The middle child can create art out of anything, and very much lives in her own, very creative world.  I took her on a walk in the woods once and we ended up following Aslan, holding Lucy’s hand, and she rode on his back when tiredness set in.  My dandelion girl has yet another view of the world, she still sees possibilities and it’s inspiring.

I suddenly noticed this one day. She didn’t say anything, just did it.

So if that’s dyslexia, I love it.

Azelea

This was inspired by Road to Shamballa Teahouse: For the people of Japan: Azalea – “Take care of yo…: “The azalea is the symbol of passion and fragility. It also bears the message: ‘Take care of yourself'”

Leaves unfurl themselves,
Green against the slumbering brown.
Tight buds, hug their colour,
Shyly blossoming.
Light streams,
Through pink, paper thin petals.
Scent hangs in the air.

Sat in a terracotta pot,
Roots in acidic soil.
My precious cargo,
Carried from city to town,
A token of love
A reminder of home.
This is my azalea.

Run Run As Fast As You Can

I must admit to hesitating about writing this post.  I’ve unfollowed people on twitter because they constantly write about how much exercise they do. “Just off for a 10K run!”  I felt exhausted just reading about it and when I found myself wondering if I too should be out there doing the same thing, it easier to switch off the stream of conscience.

So why would I hesitate about writing that?  It’s no big deal, just personal preference.  Well, I do run and I can see why people so many people (running perkily past my house) would do it.  It’s just for me, every step hurts, my lungs want to explode, most of the time my shins feel like they are being stabbed with glass and today, by the end, there was a sharp pain in my left shoulder (what was that about?!).  But that’s just the physical side!  On the mental side, there is the consent worry that someone you know will see you staggering down the road, parts of your anatomy wobbling with a life of their own, your face bright red, huffing and puffing like a buffalo.

By the end of my circuit, instead of looking off into the distance, setting myself goals to reach before walking for a short period, wondering if I’ll ever get round without the walking parts, I’m looking down, watching with detached interest every rise and fall of my feet.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m nearly home, or if I’ve gone through “the wall” but this bit I can do, I morph into a running machine.  Everything is in harmony, my legs feel powerful and I could run for ever.  My brain registers new pains, accepts them and thinks, well if you think that hurts, Ha! you should have felt the back pain when we reached the allotments and she’s still going!  Then I’m home and suddenly that’s the last memory I have of my hideous exercise.  Until I set off on my next attempt, and run about 100 meters down the road.  Then it hits me like a sledge hammer, this isn’t fun and it hurts and I sweat and it’s really undignified.

So today, as I was staggering round and not quite meeting the targets I’ve met on previous runs, I did wonder why I do this.  I’m still (relatively) young and fit, what am I trying to prove to myself?  Watching my foot as it moves through the air to strike the road, feeling the impact absorbed by my leg before the muscles tensed in my thigh, as they pushed down, propelling me forward, it suddenly struck me. I tackle running as I tackle writing.  I’ve set my self goals and I’ll push myself.  Sometimes I fall short of the goal, but I limp on until I’ve finished.  The words and ideas often bound like a gazelle, elegantly flowing onto the page, but mostly it’s a careful, deliberate word by word effort, which with practice becomes easier and less laboured.  Running also gives me the space to think, to leave my everyday world and move into a different head space.

I’d just like it to be less painful and less wobbly!