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.

Lance-with-Boonman-August-2012[1]

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

 

 

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.

LUNA PARK: NEW POEMS FOR 2015

I hope you had a good Christmas. Warm wishes for a Happy New Year anyway! In my last post I said I would write about the other book I’ve recently completed, along with Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. This is a new collection of poems, to be called Luna Park, and it will appear from Carcanet Press in autumn 2015. It’s currently available for pre-order at a discount, here:

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781857549874

It’s my first full-length book of poems since Playing With Fire in 2006.

This time the themes have a distinctly ‘lunar’ tinge to them – hence the title. Many of the poems are set at night, or they deal with dreams, visions, ghosts, or the magical.

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‘Show Me the Moon’ by Linda Cooper – cover design for ‘Luna Park’ (note the ‘no title yet’ space filler – only temporary!) Design by Stephen Raw.

Not that the title comes directly from moon matters. Luna Park was actually the name of a derelict funfair I was shown when I visited Sydney in 2001. It was beside Sydney Harbour and it fascinated me: all those slightly battered rides and attractions slightly dilapidated and shut off behind chain link fencing. It stuck in  my memory.

But it struck me that ‘Luna Park’ could also be a name for the territory of the moon and all things connected therewith. And I found the delightfully strange painting reproduced above by my friend the Cumbrian artist Linda Cooper and realised it would make the perfect cover image. Looking at it, you don’t necessarily see the cat at once, but then you follow the woman’s eyes and see that there’s a black cat and she is pulling back the curtain to let it see the moon. Fascinating.

I’ll put in a couple of poems from the book below. The first, ‘Cosmos’, was written when I was sitting up late at night in my room in a farmhouse in the Duddon Valley in the Lake District. It was first published in the magazine Resurgence, chosen by my friend Peter Abbs, the poetry editor.

 

COSMOS

Between Orion and Gemini, an almost-full moon.

Wrinkled tidewater tilting at the lips of Morecambe Bay.

 

Galaxies of cow parsley edging the valley fields.

Slow explosions of lichen on the fellside boulders.

 

The long-armed yew gesticulating at your window:

ancient growth-rings cupping a still more ancient hollow.

 

Old glass: molten tremulous lungful of human breath

spun flat, cut to rippled squares, set in the dusty casement.

 

Grain of the living oak, stopped dead in your tabletop.

Cobweb at the table’s corner a map of skewed co-ordinates.

 

Your tablelamp fed by Heysham’s uranium rods,

Haverigg’s twinkling windfarm, buried cables along the Duddon Valley.

 

Your mobile: lit menu, notional time, no signal.

The mountain: against the black of the sky, a blacker black.

 

The Troytown labyrinth of your fingerprint: Chartres maze stretched to an oval.

The fieldpaths crisscrossing in the palm of your hand.

 

Ink-slick spreading in the pen’s furrow:

gold keel ploughing an ocean of churned Norway spruce.

 

All of it drawn and drawn into the pupil’s black hole,

the dark that cannot be seen, the space that is everything else.

 

The second, ‘The Maldon Hawk’, was suggested by the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, in which an Anglo-Saxon nobleman sends his falcon  to fly free while he himself goes to battle with the Norsemen. If he survives he will call the hawk back; but we know he won’t survive. The poem gives the hawk’s view. It was first published in an anthology of poets with Oxford connections called Initiates, edited by Jane Draycott, a poet I greatly admire.

THE MALDON HAWK

he let him þa of handon   leofne fleogan

hafoc wið þæs holtes,    and to þære hilde stop

                     – ‘The Battle of Maldon’, 991 AD

 

And so, dismissed, I rose on a wingbeat

over horses already scattering to the wood,

unwanted as men turned to their war.

Vassal set loose from his master’s service,

blameless outlaw freed to the houseless wild,

circling, I watched thickets of metal and leather

crowd the shallows of the deepening tide.

Now as I scour the air my heart divides

between longing for a man’s call and the wideness of the world

where I got honour by my endgame, pleasing nobles

in the hour when the bright dove fled the man-flung hawk.

I pivot at flight’s apex but will not return,

though my jewelled eye sees each ring on his corselet

catch sun as he merges into the mass,

death-besotted warriors on their way to darkness.

Gladly I would stoop a last time into his language

but already battle’s whirlpool sucks him in, his face downward,

nameless and eyeless among the iron helmets.

I am a word forgotten from his story.

He is a landmark fading from my sight.

Men had seemed to have some special knowledge:

now the sea-wind tastes of death, they rush towards it –

whether to sing with saints or feast with battle-fellows

or lie at a tree’s root until the world ends

they know no better than I. Never again,

child of the waste moor and the tufted woodland,

will I perch on that wrist, grasp the bone beneath.

 

 

CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING

I’m celebrating, because this week I sent off the final draft of my biography of Charles Williams to Oxford University Press – and a new collection of poems to  Carcanet Press. Both, I hope, for publication in autumn 2015.

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Charles Williams reading aloud: E.G. Pierce, 1936

I’ll talk about the poems in a future post. This time I’ll concentrate on the Charles Williams biography. It will be called Charles Williams: The Third Inkling because Williams was a central member of the Inklings, the informal group of Oxford writers whose best-known members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Charles Williams – poet, dramatist, writer of metaphysical thrillers, critic, theologian, biographer, occultist and amazingly charismatic lecturer – lived from 1886 to 1945 and is far too little known. His life is a fascinating one, and much of his work is well worth rediscovering.

And Williams is a writer to be reckoned with. Ruth Rendell nominated his metaphysical thriller All Hallows’ Eve as her favourite book on BBC Radio 4; Sir Geoffrey Hill in his Clark Lectures called Williams ‘a great critic’ and his book The English Poetic Mind ‘a critical masterpiece’; C.S. Lewis said of Williams’s Arthurian poems, ‘they seem to me, both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the [twentieth] century’.

Charles Williams had an extraordinary life, and thanks to newly-opened archives containing thousands of letters, and more than twenty interviews with people who knew him, I have been able to trace his life in vivid – and, I think, highly readable – detail. We follow him from the poverty of his childhood in London, through his rise from humble proof reader to senior editor at the Oxford University Press, where he had a long and painful love affair with a colleague; we trace the gradual development of his poetic talent, alongside his involvement with Rosicrucian occultism – where the book allows you into the secret initiatory rituals Williams underwent – and on to wartime Oxford, where he becomes a close friend of Lewis and Tolkien and completes his remarkable late flowering as the twentieth century’s major poet of Arthur and the Grail.

Through good luck and the generosity of private owners, the book will reproduce almost forty drawings and photographs of Williams and his associates, many never published before and some only recently discovered. (Just as a taster, I’ve put one on this page – a drawing of CW reading aloud, by E.G. Pierce – a fine drawing never before reproduced as far as I know.) The book will answer many questions: it will clarify at last what his relationship really was with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and it will recreate, from Williams’s own notes, much of the famous lecture on Milton’s Comus which led C.S. Lewis to exclaim that Oxford University’s Divinity School ‘had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Renaissance lectures.’

Williams is the missing centrepiece from the story of twentieth-century British literature. At the start of his career he was associating with Edwardian poets Alice Meynell and Robert Bridges; later his closest friends included not only C.S. Lewis and Tolkien but T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas; he was an inspiration to young poets of the World War II generation like Sidney Keyes, Drummond Allison and John  Heath-Stubbs; and he drank in the Oxford pubs with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. It’s an astonishing story.

I owe great debts of gratitude to innumerable people who have helped with the work, including former friends and students of Charles Williams (notably the late Lois Lang-Sims), Williams scholars including David Llewellyn Dodds, and the trustees and archivists of the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two libraries that hold the major share of Williams’s papers. I was generously supported by both an Invited Visiting Scholarship at St John’s College, Oxford, and a Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant from Wheaton College, Illinois. The Charles Williams Society and the Society of the Inner Light also gave generous support. The many others who helped in so many ways are acknowledged in the book.

There’s much more to say, and of course there’s more work ahead = copy-editing queries, proofs to correct, indexing, and so on – but right now I’m heaving a big sigh of relief and looking forward to Christmas! I hope you have a wonderful holiday and a very happy New Year.

JUAN FORMELL: A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUSIC

 

If you ever came anywhere near salsa, as dancer or listener, or ever went to Cuba, you will have heard the music of Juan Formell, who died on Thursday 1 May.

He was the leader, composer and bass player for Los Van Van, the greatest Cuban band of the past fifty years and arguably the greatest Cuban band ever. The style of music he created with Los Van Van – a blend of rock and jazz creatively integrated with Afro-Cuban rhythms and structures over a base which is essentially son – was unmistakable and influenced every other artist who has worked in the mix of styles and sounds we now know as ‘salsa’.

A modest presence with short grey hair who combined a quiet, concentrated manner with a genial, welcoming smile, he was an unmistakable presence whenever the band played, and was largely responsible for both the wit and inventiveness of their songs, and the incredible precision of their playing. Los Van Van’s standard of musicianship – honed by the magnificent Cuban musical education freely available to all children with ability – was staggering to those used to the amateurishness of European pop musicians. Formell clearly ran a very tight ship, but he had a tremendous sense of humour – see for example the video below, directed by Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba, where he plays the role of a hapless tour guide, abandoned by his tourist charges who all go off to dance after loading him with their belongings. His work with the band was also profoundly based in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería – the delightful video for Chapeando shows the band led through the jungle and the human ear by Eleggua, the boy-god who opens the way for us through life’s difficulties, and the lyrics also celebrate Yemayá, the bountiful sea-goddess who provides us with fish – necesitamos tu produccion, Mama as the song says. Chapeando is probably the best album produced by any Cuban band in the past half-century. I saw Los Van Van live several times, in the UK and also in Cuba (see Travels on the Dance Floor for an account of one of their concerts in Havana), and their performances were full of incredible energy and joy as well as musical richness and precision. It was hard for anyone used to European bands to understand how they could go on playing and singing (and dancing!) with such energy for two and a half or three hours.

I’m sure the band – recently directed by Juan’s son Samuel – will go on and be as good as ever. But Juan’s achievement remains huge, and above all joyous. He gave happiness to so many people and his recordings will go on doing so. As he said himself, “My life has been entirely dedicated to music, and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”