Monday, 20 September 2010

Geography and How We've Lost It

The Mendips seen across the Somerset Levels

I used to love Geography as a subject when I was at school. It seemed so practical and useful. I learned how to read maps and what map features signified, which came in valuable later when I joined the TA. We learned where places were, and why they may have been built there.  We leaned things about the weather; but not too much. We knew the capital cities of every country - even the trick ones like Australia and Canada - and many of the general knowledge questions which we had to answer as part of our annual test at prep school were based on geographic knowledge. And when I began work dealing with people and ships in every part of the globe, I found myself well-prepared to find the tiny ports that no one has ever heard of but where some problem had occurred, and deal with geographic singularities such as the huge and dangerous troughs that form where the Aguhlas current meets the Indian Ocean and into which ships' bows can fall, as well as the astonishingly swift currents that run in Japan's Inland Sea around Imabari and the incredible tides of Bhavnaghar.

Much later, I became astonished at the decline in basic geographic knowledge among the young and then began to realise that despite the beauty and facility of Google Earth and their maps, the rise of the Sat Nav was also causing an apparent loss of interest in the features of the journey. I even wrote on Facebook, 'I wish that my Sat Nav told one the history of the country through which one is passing'.

Now a book has been written - 'Never Eat Shredded Wheat' by Christopher Somerville, which captures my unease. He writes: 'So why don't we see what is there any more? Is it bad teaching of the basics? No teaching of the basics? ...Half a dozen theories:

1. Children don't get out and wander about their local streets and countyryside as they used to, because this generation of parents, bewitched by health and safety, harbours irrational fears about traffic, or stranger danger, or accidents by flood or field. Therefore children never learn to absorb the landmarks, unimportant in themselves - a tree, a gate, a bend in the lane - that make up their own personal geography.
2. We are all frantic to get where we are going quickly as possible. Work pressures, social arrangements, I-can-be-there-for-a-meeting-if-I-leave-home-at-4am - our fast cars and 125mph trains and Edinburgh-in-forty-minutes planes force the pace, and we blindly follow.
3. We don't need to look out of the window at the outside world, because the outside world is now inside the car or bus or train carriage with us: the boss on the mobile, the Stock Market on the mobile internet, the e-mail bleeping on the Blackberry, the news on the laptop.
4. In spite of being more contactable by the outside world, we are more insulated from it. What do the rainy hills, the budding trees or the sun-driend fields, the smell of the earth or the crunch of an icy puddle have to do with the cosy cut-off world we inhabit as we flash by - a world whose sounds, smells, climate, light and shade we can select to suit ourselves at the touch of a button.
5. And that applies to foot and bike travellers too, iPods plugged in, shades on, insulated by Gore-Tex and Neoprene, pumped up by adrenaline advertising, staring ahead and burning calories, using the countryside as a gym - To the Max! Go for it! Rippin' Up the Ridgeway!
6. Planning a journey, and then doing it, have been reduced by GPS, Sat Nav and Google Maps and other positional and directional tools to a matter of a) where to start, and b) where to finish.
Everything in between is taken care of by 'someone else'- namely the little personal servant goblin who lives in the gizmo and tells us exactly where to turn left and how far it is to the next service station. So we read Ordnance Survey maps and road atlases less; we have less peripheral context about any given place because we're missing the wealth of superfluous but civilising and enriching detail inherent in maps, so plump with facts and knowledge, so redolent of our huge heritage of national culture and history. To move through a GPS landscape of grey blanks knitted together by spider lines is to negate the very notion of Stevenson-style travelling. Lay the Google and the OS 1:25,000 Explorer maps of the Stonehenge area side by side. On Google, roads and a ghostly hint of buildings. That's it. On the Explorer, all round the mighty henge itself: ridged and billowing downland, ancient trackways, processional paths, long barrows and tumuli where our distant lordly ancestors lie buried, the mysterious banking of the Cursus track, copses and spinneys bounded by unexplained earthworks.

So we actually need all this stuff to go from Amesbury to Winterbourne Stoke? No, we don't. Should we delight in it and feel grateful to be part of it, and smack our imaginative lips over it and be inspired to come back and explore it with a flower book and an archaeology book on a sunny day soon? Absolutely.'

How much I agree - though I still love the Tom Tom when I'm late and lost!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Leonard Cohen The Master

Leonard Cohen at St Margarethen

I believe that I first heard Leonard Cohen when he was playing his songs on a beach in the South of France in 1964. Ever since he has been the most interesting and influential of singers and songwriters to me and many of my generation.

He disappeared from public life in 1993 and entered a Buddhist monastery. In 1998  he encountered Ramesh Balsekar and spend six months with him before realising his master's teachings for himself.

 Incredibly after almost 50 years, his career now appears to be at its height. From 2008 onwards, he undertook on an almost non-stop concert tour of the world. He's now 75) He's singing in Sydney in November and will give a final concert  in Las Vegas in December (he has avoided singing in the USA until now).  

So powerful are his concerts that when the tour arrived in New Zealand in January 2009, Simon Sweetman wrote in The Dominion Post "It is hard work having to put this concert into words so I'll just say something I have never said in a review before and will never say again: this was the best show I have ever seen." 

His has also been voted the best performance of everyone who has headlined at Glastonbury.

His tour repertoire is roughly the same at each performance and has been beautifully captured in the DVD 'Live in London' recorded at the O2 in November 2008. When he appeared in the 2nd century Roman stone quarry amphitheatre at St Margarethen in Burgenland, on 5th September 2010, the concert was equally stunning, but the performance was the more remarkable in that the temperature that night was only 11C (see the scarf he is wearing in the photo above).

In addition to his songs, his stage performance is characterised by the reverence he shows for his fellow musicians, introducing each of them with gentle laudatory words and often kneeling before them as they perform solo riffs. They have been the same throughout his world tour - a backing trio of Sharon Robinson and Hattie and Charlie Webb,  accompanied by Roscoe Beck (bass, vocals and musical director),  Neil Larsen (keyboards & Hammond B3 accordion), Bob Metzger (electric, acoustic & pedal steel guitar), Javier Mas from Barcelona (bandurria, laud, archilaud, 12 string acoustic guitar), Rafael Gayol (drums, percussion) and Dino Soldo (sax, clarinet dobro – keys) all of who are nothing less than the finest virtuoso musicians in their own right. It says much for his personality and character that the entire group has travelled the world playing countless concerts with him for over two years. If you can't now get to one of his final concerts, do order the DVD. 

Click here for a recent New York Times article 

Postscript: Following his death in November 2016, there has been an outpouring of love and appreciation for his unique talent. Some wonderful eulogies have been written, this one in The Big Issue:

"There are people, a small number of people, who are navigators. They see things, plot the course, and we hitch up behind them. The very best of these people are with us on lifelong trips. They find ways to communicate in ways that the rest of us can't. They are associated with certain memories that are buried deep and hardwired. The great ones, like Leonard Cohen, are also very funny. Without a sense of humour, whether it lands darkly or in crapfalls, we really are lost. The sadness felt at someone like Leonard Cohen dying is really a complex thing. A permanence eroded, the world feeling a little darker, intelligence dimmed. And I have yet to find a Cohen fan that I didn't like.' Paul McNamee.