Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Lance Cousins (1942-2015)

Today I must pay tribute to my dear friend and teacher, Lance Cousins, who died in Oxford on 14 March.

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Lance Cousins (foreground) with his teacher, Nai Boonman (behind)

Lance was the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. A Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, he was an unforgettable character and a constant source of amazement, amusement, wisdom and inspiration. Think of Gandalf in a green jumper with a mug of coffee in his hand and you will have some idea.

I first met Lance when I joined the Manchester University Buddhist Society in 1975, soon after arriving to work at the University. I had noticed him before I knew who he was: a quiet, bearded chap who came into the senior common room looking very alert and moving quietly: there was something cat-like in the way he padded about.

Once I joined the Society I realised that he was its motivator: he had taught Charles Shaw, who was my own first teacher in meditation, and Lance himself came to all the Society’s weekly talks by visiting speakers, and afterwards would join in fascinating discussions which ranged far and wide, on all kinds of things, philosophical and personal. He was ready with apposite, amusingly-expressed advice for anyone who had a problem but he could also quote from the ancient texts.

He also became the focus of a group of friendly academics who would spend hours in the Common Room debating everything in the world over coffee: a group of true philosophers that tended to include Harry Lesser, John Kane, Philip Alexander, Tony James, Norman Calder and others. The flow of ideas, questions, knowledge and humour was marvellous.

Over the years that followed I came to know Lance as an incomparable teacher. The meditation he taught, the stimulus of his teaching, and the example of his presence completely changed my life and gave it a new focus.

He was mainly a teacher of Samatha, a traditional method of meditation using the in-and-out breath as an object, which he had learned from his own Thai teacher, Nai Boonman. But he was far from limiting himself to ‘Buddhism by the Book’: he’d been trained in the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky tradition; he was an expert astrologer who drew up a birth chart for me and many others; he knew a great deal about the Kabbala and encouraged his meditation students to learn about that as well. He was also very well-read, and could discuss almost any author in English literature and, of course, most fantasy and science fiction of which he read a great deal (and I believe wrote some himself).

In due course, as well as supporting and stimulating the Manchester University Buddhist Society, Lance was the main mover in establishing the Samatha Centre (later the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation) in Chorlton, and then, with other senior teachers and Trustees, the national Samatha Centre, Greenstreete, in the Welsh Borders.

At the same time he ran study groups of Buddhist texts either at his house or at the Centre, and these meetings, often going on until well after midnight, were endlessly illuminating. Lance had a fresh, humorous and profound angle on everything, and he would also listen carefully and give full attention to what others had to say. In fact he insisted that others had their say! Of course we didn’t always agree, and at times I found him infuriating! All part of the fun and the learning process.

He moved to Oxford some twenty years ago and after that I saw less of him but whenever I visited we would have long and happy chats about all sorts of things, and I would always get wise insight into whatever problem, difficulty or stage of life I might be going through. Lance’s kindness and learning increased over the years and somehow he seemed to grow older, not just physically, but in wisdom as well. It was as if he’d started off six years older than me but ended twenty-six years older. Spiritually I have to say that he was my father. I will never meet anyone like him, and it is daunting to realise that now he is gone and we must do what we can to go on with the work, or some aspect of it, without him.

There are no words to express my gratitude and I know hundreds of others feel the same.

This is a rough and hasty tribute but the best I can manage at present. For more information, photos and tributtes, go to www.samatha.org.uk/lance-cousins

 

 

Lakeland’s Weirdest Monument?

On Saturday I finally found something I’d been looking for, on and off, for the past 20 years: Longmire’s Rocks. I’d heard they were somewhere on the eastern shore of Windermere, near Whitecross Bay, and I’d mentioned them in my Literary Guide to the Lake District, admitting that I hadn’t seen them myself, and suggesting that readers try to find them. But I’d never tracked them down, and no one else seemed to know where they were, or even if they still existed.

Carved rock. with wooden steps from Cragwood behind

The path from Cragwood comes down wooden steps at back; note carved rock in foreground

But with a revised Third Edition of my Literary Guide to prepare for publication this spring by Sigma Press, I decided to make one more effort. I put out a call for help, and it was former Lake Ranger Tony Hill who told me where to look. So on Saturday I went to see them. Longmire’s Rocks are a group of natural rock slabs on the lake shore. In the 1830s an eccentric stonemason from Troutbeck, John Longmire, used to spend his spare time carving beautifully-lettered inscriptions about all kinds of things into these rocks.

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You can just make out Wordsworth’s name, and what looks like ‘John Bolton, Storrs Hall’ on this rock

There are people’s names – poets (Wordsworth, John Wilson, Walter Scott), inventors (James Watt, Dr Jenner of vaccination fame), and political slogans about the national debt, the Corn Laws and other topics. All perfectly carved in letters as big as your hand or bigger but jumbled together higgledy-piggledy with no particular order. You get to them, it turns out, by taking the path towards the lake from the back of the car park at the Cragfoot Hotel (the owners don’t mind if you go quietly through the grounds following the path, but please park at Brockhole Visitor Centre unless you’re staying at the hotel). When you get to a low wall with a gap, take the left fork in the path and you will reach the lake shore by some wooden steps. The inscriptions are there.

'National Debt £800,000,000' - inscription with encroaching leaf debris

‘National Debt £800,000,000’! But you can see how the carvings vanish under leaves and debris. See lower down for Tony Hill’s photo of more of this rock, clarified with chalk!

Many of them are now covered with fallen leaves, moss and other natural debris, but you can still see enough to get the idea. A few volunteers with stiff brooms and carefully-wielded trowels could unearth a lot more, I’m sure. Apparently the rocks were quite a tourist attraction in the Victorian period but have been largely forgotten since. Anyway it was well worth the visit. Bizarre, beautiful and a bit eerie, these slightly crazy, lovingly stone-cut words in their lonely setting by the Lake are a strange and evocative sight. Let’s hope they are not completely forgotten, and that someone will occasionally give them a cleanup.

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Parry, the polar explorer, is commemorated here, along with poet John Wilson and others I couldn’t manage to read!

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The ‘National Debt’ rock, photo courtesy of Tony Hill, who added chalk to make it clearer. There is much more, but it is all gradually being buried by natural process.

 

Cold Beautiful Borrowdale

Spent a few days in Borrowdale last week and thought I’d upload a few photos: nothing exceptional, just the perpetually varying, incredible beauty of the area, which is never the same two days or indeed two hours together, no matter what the season. Some days the air was freezing but we had log fires!

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Styhead Gill coming down towards Seatoller

 

We didn’t do any long walks or high climbs because we had two-and-a-half-year-old Lyla with us, a determined walker in her pink wellies, and ten-year-old Sienna, a much more ambitious walker but at this time recovering from a bout of asthma. So we stayed in the valleys and walked slowly. Even so it was wonderful.

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South from Seathwaite towards Styhead

 

 

 

 

 

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Er… not sure of the location. Sty Head Gill again? Don’t know.

 

 

The only bit that wasn’t so good, though I suppose exciting, was getting caught is a blizzard on Dunmail Raise (which seems to have a special licence to put on blizzards when everywhere else is clear). The car ahead of ours stuck still, wheels spinning, and had to be pushed but my old Volvo struggled along and got a grip. Then we were over the Raise and heading down into Grasmere so all was well.

 

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Little Stanger Gill, swollen by rain

 

Ashenden: Fiction’s First Modern Spy

I was just taking a copy of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold off the shelf in Blackwell’s the other day – determined to read all of John le Carré’s Smiley books in sequence – when I had a better idea.

Why not go right to the roots of the genre, and read W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories? I’d often heard that this was where realistic spy fiction started, and here was the place to find out. So I went upstairs to where they keep the pre-1960 fiction, and found when I was after: the Vintage paperback of Maugham’s 1928 story collection, Ashenden.

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“Maugham facing camera” by Tucker Collection – New York Public Library Archives. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Maugham was employed by the British secret service in Switzerland and elsewhere during the First World War, so he knew what he was writing about. The stories have, in an intriguing and gently realistic period setting, all the things we’ve grown used to from le Carré’s novels: double agents, betrayals, mistakes, blackmail, cold-blooded murder (sometimes of what turns out to have been the wrong person), and a spymaster known only by an initial: Ashenden takes his orders from a military intelligence officer known as ‘R’.

Not all the stories are full of suspense. Some are gently humorous; some leave lots of loose ends, or twist off into directions completely unforeseen, which all fits perfectly with the quietly insane world of espionage, where nobody is what they seem and nobody is quite sure where things are going or whether actions are wise or foolish.

The final story in the book contains a wonderfully convincing account of Russia in October and November 1917 at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution: no heroics, no grand scene-painting, just food shortages, confusion, soldiers shooting at random on the streets, and Ashenden accepting that whatever he was supposed to be doing in Moscow is now totally irrelevant and the best he can hope for is a coded message telling him to return home before the borders are closed.

It struck me that there might be a good book to be written about that time in Russia when Arthur Ransome, Hugh Walpole, John Reed and (if the story is from experience, as it appears) Maugham himself were all in Russia, working for Press and/or Intelligence and helplessly caught up in revolutionary chaos. Maybe someone out there would like to write it?

And while we’re digressing, as I read Ashenden I couldn’t help finding something about the style and approach a little familar. I realised that I was being reminded of Borges’s story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’. I wouldn’t mind betting that Borges had read Maugham’s stories and was using them as a model – though of course his tale is far more fantastic.

Anyway, if you like spy fiction and want a good, intelligent but undemanding, fascinating and well-written period-piece, I can’t recommend anything better than Ashenden. I’m delighted to make his acquaintance.

Chapel of the Thorn – Rediscovered!

A poetic drama by Charles Williams lost for a century has just been published for the first time, edited by Sørina Higgins. I’m delighted, because The Chapel of the Thorn really is a neglected gem.

Written around 1914, the play, set in the early middle ages, portrays a three-cornered struggle amongst the Church, the Mystic and the Pagan – three forces which were powerful in the early psychology of Charles Williams himself.

Williams would go on to become a successful author of spiritual thrillers – All Hallows’ Eve and The Place of the Lion famous among them; a major poet of the Arthurian mythos; an influential Anglican theologian; and a central member of the Inklings, the group of Oxford writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom were his close friends in the late 1930s and during World War 2. But this play was written much earlier, when he was just setting out as a writer.

The Chapel of the Thorn concerns the struggle for possession of a thorn from Christ’s crown and the chapel where it is housed. The chapel, with its relic the thorn, is guarded by a solitary priest, Joachim, and his young acolyte, Michael. The play depicts a battle between mysticism, represented by Joachim; the Church, represented by the local Abbot, Innocent; and paganism, in the form of Amael, a bard and high priest of the old gods.

Untrustworthy Abbot Innocent wants to wall in the chapel, and take the thorn so it will draw pilgrims to his abbey. Idealistic Joachim, the mystic, believing only in the value of direct communion with God and lacking respect for the church hierarchy, wants to keep the thorn at his humble chapel, and has the local villagers’ promise that they will fight to keep the chapel independent. What Joachim does not know is that the villagers are concerned only because the chapel has been built over the tomb of Druhild, a pagan hero who, they believe, will one day rise from the dead. For their Christianity is only superficial. Their values are represented by Amael, the pagan priest and bard.

The Chapel of the Thorn contains some magnificent verse, and to me its crowning achievement is the vivid imaginative portrayal of the pagan Amael. Here’s a clip of the book launch which includes performance of some of the play’s fine poetry:

 

Amael represents a heroic and brutal world, and he speaks much of the play’s best poetry. He admits that he has performed human sacrifice:

            Twice hath my hand lain over mortal eyes,

While, with the incantation of the Fire,

I struck forth human blood upon the stone!

But he can also be modest:

                                                I am a little dust

Blown from the ruined temples of the gods

And troubled by the feet of the white Christ

When he goes through the land.

He wants to lure away Michael, young acolyte of the Christian mystic Joachim, to join him as a pagan wanderer. He asks:

                                                Is it time in youth

To wait upon white altars? Hark, the gods

Sing at their feasting, not as hermits sing!

We servants of the gods have heard their song,

And some of us are mad with their delight,

And some are lords of ships and raids and fire,

And some have crept into the black bear’s den

With a torch and a spear and slain him: but we all

Are heroes, princes, champions!

The play’s poetry, and its rich, conflicted blend of Christianity and Paganism, shows many of the elements and dynamics which would eventually shape Charles Williams’s major Arthurian poems, written some twenty years later.

For anyone interested in Williams, or in the depiction of mysticism and paganism in the early twentieth century, The Chapel of the Thorn is essential reading. Sørina Higgins’s elegantly-produced edition includes an essay by David Llewellyn Dodds, and a Preface based on material from my forthcoming biography of Williams, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, due later in 2015, which will give the full biographical context of the play and its composition, and suggest why it was abandoned.