Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

An English garden in spring

Yes, it’s true. I have been around the world and been to so many places that have really stirred the soul. Now that the jet-lag is gone and the first few days chores are done, I can write about more of them. But, before that, here’s a glimpse of the specialness that emerges in an English spring.

First daffodils in my garden

First flowers of spring

Welcome to Canada

While in Toronto, my niece took me along to a minor league ice hockey game, between the Toronto Marlies and some American team. Fast, exciting, and full of a kind of incidental violence which may go some way to explaining why Canadians are so polite. For once, I got the settings nearly right and these two shots are from the game.

Goal or foul? I'm British - how would I know.

Goal or foul? I’m British – how would I know?

Not often you see a huddle of umpires....

Not often you see a huddle of umpires….

In the first picture, it did turn out to be a goal. The second comes from a five minute conference between the umpires on who to sin-bin after a particularly intense fight.

I didn’t quite stand on my seat and cheer when WE won 4-2, but nearly – GO MARLIES – YAY!

Wierded out in US immigration

USBPFor years, I have been hearing and telling stories about the unsmiling harshness of the US immigration service. But at San Francisco, this morning, I was confronted by a smile, a courteous enquiry about my birth place and a friendly invitation to enjoy my stay. Surely, my guy was an exception, I thought, but no – I saw they were all doing it – courteous, polite, relaxed… whoa!

So, folks – is this just in San Francisco, on President’s Day? Or is this part of a wider trend? Next, will it be cheerful non-political chat from taxi drivers in London? …. polite Parisian waiters? …. New Zealanders embracing Aussies as long-lost pals?….. We need to know!

Dreams of the Whanganui

The start of the Whanganui river road

The start of the Whanganui river road

One part of this trip will stay with me for a long time – the journey up the Whanganui river road. The valley cuts a deep, winding path through the hills of the New Zealand’s North Island, but it now has just two bridges – at Whanganui town itself, and the so-called Bridge to Nowhere , some 100 kms to the North. Sacred to the Maori, it is a hauntingly beautiful place, with many more stories than I could possibly unearth and tell on my short journey through it.

It was also once, a place of dreams for British, mainly Scottish would be settlers, its river banks advertised as fertile ground on which to nurture a new life away from the grinding poverty of their Victorian homeland. At first they got along with the local Maori well, then fighting broke out as the local tribal leaders began to realise that gifts of guns and cloth came with barbed wire and claims over land. But eventually, they agreed a peace that saw them  take the side of the English in later wars with other Maori tribes. New Zealand history is, as the Americans say, “complicated”.

Abandoned farm on the West bank

Abandoned farm on the West bank

Fertile as were the fields surrounding the mouth of the river, the higher reaches proved hard, narrow and difficult to work. Today, there remain a few sheep and cattle farms on the East bank of the river, served by the river road, but almost all on the West have long been abandoned, already reclaimed by the thick New Zealand bush. Maori villages, too, have been disappearing, as people are drawn to the better and easier living of the larger cities. Though they still return, by family and tribe to the remaining marae[1] for weddings and funerals, even those marae that remain are little used otherwise.

Driving down to Koriniti Marae, I was passed by a full school bus, but found the Marae itself apparently deserted, it’s wooden church, long-houses and refectory,  closed and silent. However, with a feeling of quiet expectancy, I sat down to wait. After about half an hour I spotted a thin, bearded figure walking up from the nearby river. This was Gilbert, a local half-Scot, half-Maori, who had retired some years ago from “35 years working the railway”, and returned here, to his childhood village.

Koriniti Marai

Koriniti Marai

“What you want to come all that way to this little place for?” he asked, a look of wry amusement on his face. But after we’d discussed the whereabouts of his sheep – “they love the grass down here, but they make such a mess” – the chestnut and fruit trees that surround the Marae, and the farms he used to help tend across the river (all abandoned, now) – he took me through the gate into the grounds of the Marae, itself.



By then, we’d been joined by a young Swiss couple who helpfully plied him with questions, allowing me to get this shot, with the left-hand long-house in the background. Gilbert told us proudly of how his uncle had rescued the carvings and much of the rest of the structure from another Marae that had been abandoned on the West bank of the river. “He knew it would rot away if it was left, so he brought it down piece by piece, by canoe. Rebuilt it here himself; wouldn’t let anyone help him”. Gilbert paused a moment, then added,” He wanted it done right”.

Even then, fifty years ago, Gilbert said that the surrounding village was just forty in all – it had been much larger in the century before, when the Church of England had established a mission there. “We all lived together, then. But then they told him (sic), he could have his own house, and he moved away” Gilbert said, with a laugh and shook his head.

The carvings rescued by Gilbert's uncle

Part of the carvings rescued by Gilbert’s uncle

Pipiriki - the end of the road - only boats go further north

Pipiriki – the end of the road – only boats go further north

Koriniti, he told me, was the Maori name for Corinth – missionaries to the area tended to name their missions after cities in the bible or in Europe. Later, I passed Hiruhārama (Jerusalem), the largest remaining Marae on this river and Ranana (London). Eventually, I arrived at Pipiriki the end of the river road. To get to the Bridge to Nowhere would have meant a 30km boat ride – the jet boats sound like fun, but there is no time for me today and so I turn East.

Post script: A week later, I walked into the Auckland Art Gallery, to find this series of b/w images of the Whanganui, by Ann Noble. If my pictures do not convey the beauty of this rare place, perhaps these do.

[1] A marae is a ceremonial ground and meeting place – every Maori Iwi or tribe has one, that in times past represented both the geographical and spiritual heart of its people. Today’s maraes are well cared for, and still provide a focus for the great values and principles of maori culture – pride in family and tribe and a deeper kinship for nature than most westerners have ever known. I wonder if new ways need to be found to sustain those values in the modern world, but only the Maori will know.

Steam, mud and smiles

Sometimes, you just have to let the pictures speak for themselves – these were taken at Wai-o-tapu near Rotarua, part of the still active volcanic centre of New Zealand’s North Island.

The rainbow pool at Wai-o-Tapu

The rainbow pool at Wai-o-Tapu

Close-up to the pool

Close-up to the pool

Yes, it really is that colour.  Promise.

Yes, it really is that colour. Promise.

Mud, gloriously mud.

Mud, glorious mud.

I was in company with an old friend, whom some of you will know and made two new friends, in Brits who were passing through, but in the opposite direction. If you’re reading this, “hi”.

Clive, looking unusually serious.

Clive, looking unusually serious.

Two northern lasses, Shelly and Ali.

Two northern lasses, Shelly and Ali.

Important discoveries 2

gregsue_1No matter how interesting the conversation may be, as with Wanganui author and retired art teacher Chris Moisa*, drinking two New Zealand strength flat-whites is not such a great idea…… (written while resisting jitterbugging across the Wanganui public library, as I try to log on for my daily emails)!



Network living and why I think my Buddhist friends are (probably) mistaken

This blog has reached its fifth draft, partly because I have hesitated over putting too much profundity into what is, essentially, a travelogue. But without wishing to follow Socrates all the way, I really ought to worry a little less about losing my audience.

A few years back, the in-word in business was “networking”. Of course, they borrowed the term from internet circles, who probably got it from somewhere else, like the telephone. But as I blog about this walkabout, I am starting to see that networks are really everywhere – indeed, it seems to me that life and existence are much more to do with networks and cooperation than to do with individuals. This is where my Buddhist friends will probably be saying, “At last, he gets it”, but I’ll get to them in a minute.

A while back, when I was in West Bengal a biologist I was talking to (who is also a Buddhist, as it happens) remarked on how Darwin was only very narrowly right. Yes, she said, competition may determine which particular plant survives in a particular circumstance, but it is cooperation that shapes ecology and therefore evolution. From the complex interactions of predators and prey in the Serengeti, to the way in which our whole metabolism depends on bacteria with which we have no conscious connection, the evidence for the interdependency of life is overwhelming.  My brains work – indeed live – by the formation of ever developing networks, whole cascades of which have to cooperate in order to get a fork-full of food into my mouth. And so we can see that it is the whole environment and the networks within it that evolve, not just the individual species.

Itinerant painter and philosopher Horatio

Itinerant painter and philosopher Horatio

And these networks, of course, stretch into our more immediate realities. Families, clubs and nations, professions, religious congregations and high wire trapeze acts all form networks which, in their interactions, form larger and more intricate relationships across time and space. Take, for example, my meeting with Horatio, the painter. A less likely pairing, you would work hard to find – me, the semi-retired business man, with his camera and laptop – him, the itinerant who travels and lives on the strength of abstract pictures that he draws with acrylic pens. My questions about his art and his about my accent, lead to a conversation that stretches from Paris to Wellington and from Martin Luther King to Henry David Thoreau, while we sit in the shade of a café awning in Fremantle. As we talk, we explore our common and different networks and it is thus that most relationships are formed and strengthened. Do we not say of someone we find of no interest, “We have nothing in common”?

But here’s another question; what is it that sustains the network? Well, clearly there is huge variance, but it seems to me that the most fundamental features are energy and incompleteness, after which come value and then inertia. Energy only flows and therefore, associations and networks only form when things are incomplete or hungry (be it for energy, social interaction, influence, recognition). When a person declares that they ”love” Paris, or they “hate” New York in winter, are they not conveying to us their values and therefore their networks; inviting us to join with both?[1]

But, if our lives are really about the ebb and flow of networked values and energies, what then is the value of our sense of individual self? My Buddhist friends might have us believe that our sense of self is effectively an illusion; existing only by associations that will die as soon as our brains do or as we free ourselves from demeaning attachments. But surely, for any network to exist, it must have nodes by which it is bound and forms by which it is channeled.  Yes, they may evolve, develop or diminish, but we all have that experience in life, of changing yet, in some fundamental sense, continuing. And if networks are really the whole, why should we seek to detach from them? Surely the passions of the great “yes” or the great “no”; the great love or the great defiance, the great comprehension; those great moments of spiritual incandescence  – these both announce and make a powerful something, a permanence of value and belief, distilled from our very being and the networks that we are part of, that can extend beyond death, making us permanent carriers of those very values that we cherish and the networks of which we are part. And so, in some sense, is part of the meaning of this life, to forge the values, the beliefs and the networks that we will carry into the next?

[1] Curiously, I think this suggests that in some profound sense, we humans are the most incomplete of all. Do we not form the widest and most varied networks, not just between our kind, but with animals, plants, localities, that we add to, incessantly, as we travel from place to place?

(Sort of) meetings with (maybe) remarkable artists

During my stay in WA, I was not really expecting that any of the high points of my visit would have anything to do with art. Beaches, yes. Good friends, yes. Great sea-food certainly – but art? Not really. Following that opening, I would really like to follow with a pictorial of all the fantastic pieces I saw, and where and how, but frankly, I wasn’t that well organised. So, what follows are some fragmentary images from a delightful day.

And a recommendation – if you are ever in either Perth or Fremantle and you are wondering what to do – get thee to the Art Gallery of Western Australia and get thee to the cafés and sidewalks and galleries of Fremantle (and there’s a great train that takes just 20 minutes to get from the one to the other, by the way).  And, if you are disappointed, well, just have another beer, a swim, a walk on the beach…..

Dust ‘til Dawn (breakaways - two dogs) - Beaver Lennon

Dust ‘til Dawn (breakaways – two dogs) – Beaver Lennon – part of the 2013 WA indigenous art awards

Statue outside the WA art gallery

Statue outside the WA art gallery

"...and meanwhile back on earth, the blooms continue to flourish -  Up in the heavens the gods contemplate their next move [secret charms are given to man]" - B Robinson.

“…and meanwhile back on earth, the blooms continue to flourish –
Up in the heavens the gods contemplate their next move [secret charms are given to man]” – B Robinson. Winner of the 2013 Indigenous Art award*

*it’s not just the artwork, although that is pretty cool – it is the conception indicated in the title of the piece that gives it yet another dimension.

A piece at the Gallery that I forgot to get the name of... - sorry.

One of a group of three that I forgot to get the name of… – sorry.

Ironwork verandas in Fremantle.

Ironwork verandas in Fremantle.

Street-side mural by Horatio T Birdbath

Street-side mural in Fremantle WA….

Itinerant painter and philosopher Horatio T Birdbath

….and the artist himself – Itinerant painter, philosopher, New Zealander; Horatio T Birdbath

For more information on the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the WA Indigenous Art Awards or Mr Horatio Thunder Birdbath, or indeed Fremantle, just follow the links.

Singapore limits?

Statues in the Museum of Asian Civilisations

Statues in the Museum of Asian Civilisations

This blog is meant as a kind of plea, just in case I am doing some five million people a significant injustice. You see, while I was there, I seem to have hit a wall, or perhaps a ceiling in my understanding of this place.

It is not that it lacks soul – there is definitely a feeling to the place and to the people – but it does seem very confined; focussed upon the singular pursuit of commercial and material success. Perhaps, I am mistaking newness for shallowness, the absence of bookstores (I have only seen one, and that, inside a museum, since I got here) for a lack of intellectual enquiry, the city’s extraordinary cleanliness for sterility.

Businessmen chatting in the forecourt of the oldest Buddhist temple in Singapore

Businessmen chatting in the forecourt of the oldest Buddhist temple in Singapore

Yes, I have seen that the Buddhist temple and the main Mosque (situated within 200m of one another) are well endowed and enjoy a regular stream of devotees, unperturbed by the equal stream of curious tourists, like me.

Preparing for New Year in China Town

Preparing for New Year in China Town

And I don’t doubt that the careful courtesy that I have met from most people is genuine, unforced. And, yes, it is certainly true that I have not explored the city as widely as I could have.

So, maybe it is I that is being too shallow. If you have been there, or better yet, live there, please let me know what you think. I hesitate to add a poll because that would just restrict answers. Instead, here is a contact form, to make it easier for you to comment.


The Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda from the West

Schwe Dagon_2The Shwedagon Pagoda is a Buddhist temple complex that lies a little way apart from the centre of Yangon, in its own parkland. Local legends suggest that the first temple on the site was built more than 2,000 years ago. The present structure is more recent  – the gold plating originating with a Queen Shinsawbu, who ruled Burma in the 15th Century. In the decades following it has been added to, repeatedly to include hundreds of shrines and meditation halls.

Once I’d arrived at the west gate, a huge structure in itself,  I found that I was still 200 yards and 200 feet below the summit of the hill on which the temple stands. A long climb, but this is what I saw when I got to the top

In fact, this picture is a bit of a happy accident –  the place was actually teeming with visitors – quite a few European types, but mainly Burmese, for this is a country in which religion still plays a large part in peoples’ lives. In many part so the world, people circle the stupas clockwise, chanting as they go, but here people wander everywhere alone or in groups – families or friends; walking, talking, pausing to offer a prayer, or sitting to meditate.As part of their devotion, a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions - a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions – a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

A solitary monk meditates in one of several shrines

A solitary monk meditates from one of many shrines that face towards the stupa

Shortly after I arrived, I started to hear a group of people chanting – intrigued, I went in search of the source, expecting to find, perhaps a group of novice monks at prayer. Instead I found this group of teenage girls, many in uniform, chanting but also preparing some kind of meal, and occasionally, it seemed catching a moment to swap some gossip.

Schwe Dagon_9

I spent about an hour circling the central stupa myself, engaged in my own self-alignment exercises, before I thought it was time to go, struck by the ease with which I had been able to formulate and enact the exercise. Returning downhill I paused briefly at the side of the steps, only to catch the eye of an older local man who was limping towards me. “You are just in time”, he said but the next few words were obscured as he walked past me, pointing as he went; “…… bats ……., wait …… picture…” was all I caught. So, naturally, I stopped and waited…. and waited…… and  waited….. And then they were there, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of small bats flying in a thick stream out from under the temple roofs and off into the gathering sunset. Despite it going on for nearly half an hour, I got few good pictures, but these may give you a sense of it.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The bats heading westward

The bats heading westward

Well pleased, I eventually walked off to find a taxi back town.

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