The Year of Heavenly Harmony

This year of 2012 is stuffed with anniversaries: Dickens, Shakespeare, Titanic, accession of Queen Elizabeth II. And then we (i.e. London) has the Olympics. Predictions of the end of the world and stunning planetary line-ups add to the drama, especially when day after day on the news it does look like the end of Europe. Ecocide everywhere, even on my doorstep, and the story of Fukishima not over yet.

Life, of course, carries on as usual, if you call it usual to go to the supermarket and see the Union flag everywhere, even on the toilet rolls and ryvitas. Everyone is gearing up for the weekend after next, including the planet Venus who will end the Jubilee by transiting the sun and completing a five-petalled rose in the sky that took eight years to draw.

That the orbits of Venus and Earth round the sun involve the numbers 5, 8 and 1.6 is shown in this lovely video from

It is completely scientific; only geometers will thrill to the significance of 1.6 and phi relationships. (See John Martineau’s ‘Little Book of Coincidence’.) Let’s just say it’s auspicious for world harmony. The transit is visible in the States at sunset June 5th and in the UK at sunrise June 6th. It will not happen again until 2117.

We have no idea what we shall be doing on Jubilee weekend and the mood here, as ever on Big Occasions, is to ignore it all as best we can – and then get sucked in at the last moment and end up all teary with wobbly chins at the absolute glory of a royal pageant. (In case we sound like two anti-social grumpies, I must add that our own anniversaries are similarly ignored – we passed our 10th without a murmur – we like to think of it as Stoicism but it’s really just forgetfulness.)

I was two and eleven twelfths at the Coronation. My parents went to the event and had seats at Pall Mall – I was left with my grandparents and their brand new television set. I watched the Coronation as a moving black and white picture on a tiny screen set in a great wooden cabinet and I very much suppose that my jaw hung open. I remember the atmosphere in the room more than the images, a palpable sense of occasion, a frisson in the family: history in the making. My Victorian grandparents, with their velvet drapes and Venetian glass, their war-weary children, their unruly grandchildren who could only sit still for an hour at a time: between us, we were to span an epoch called the twentieth century.

Big Ted watched the Coronation with me, and he was taller than me at the time. He’s 61 this year.

Queen Elizabeth has looked after me ever since, embracing my life, always there, sometimes like a frosty aunt who has to be visited every now and again so that she can lay down the law, sometimes like a stern but kind mother; often like my mother, who wasn’t stern. I was born after Charles and before Anne and grew up with them. Charles has always been the voice for everything I have believed and still do believe. His recent book Harmony captures all my apparently irreconcilable facets and makes them a whole, so that as a lover of Botticelli it is only natural that I love Mozart, hate modern architecture, practice geometry and garden biodynamically. We were children of the same time.

There is a look to the Queen, have you noticed? – a tightness around the eyes as if she is in pain, as if she looks out through pain. Charles has it, so does Anne. It says to me that here is someone with a sense of duty in an ungrateful world; here is a monarch that was only an ideal before but in the Windsors is an actuality, one who serves.

Interestingly, Prince Andrew does not have ‘the look’ – he hobnobs with the King of Bahrain with no sense of duty at all. I wonder how he and Charles get on at family do’s? I can’t imagine they have much in common. A sense of the sacred and a love of Dubai seem incompatible.

When I was writing Consider England I applied to visit Charles’s home at Highgrove to see the garden and permission was duly and courteously given. HRH was not at home on the day, but we were greeted by the head gardener and served tea by a uniformed butler. When the butler stooped to pour the tea, a crown of golden thread embroidered on his jacket passed close by my nose. My legs went weak and my head swam. For a moment I was two again, only in this particular moment Royalty was not on television, it was serving me tea. Crowns, coaches, orbs and sceptres, these symbols were branded on my soul by a hot television at a very early age.

So here’s to you, Ma’am, and your Big Day. I’ll think of something to do to celebrate, other than eat ryvitas and go to the toilet. England expects, you know; England expects not only that you do your duty but that the pageant will be utterly stunning, reducing the Olympics to a mild aftershock. Here’s to many more years for you, and for the world.

Just in case you didn’t believe me.

Having written that in the early hours, I turned on the TV at 7am, the very moment when the Olympic torch touched down in a helicopter at Land’s End. The origin of the sacred flame of Olympia began in ancient Greece: while it was alight, all warring factions put down their arms to allow the athletes their sport. For the next 70 days it will be jogged, walked, wheeled and waddled by 8000 torch bearers up and down England. Judging by the first hour, this will not be gripping television, but the symbolism is the same: peace on earth and goodwill to all men.


The Arrow-Maker and the Gorilla

There is an ancient story from the Indian tradition about an arrow-maker whose attention to his work was so focussed and fine that he was unaware of a boisterous wedding procession passing by his window. The moral of the story seems to be that this state of mind leads to mastery of your art.

I am just checking the second set of proofs for A Gift for the Magus. How many times has this book been edited? Let me count them. At least four times by me, including use of software programmes such as Editor. Once by a proper editor. It has been edited so often and so thoroughly that it seemed barely necessary to hire a proof reader, so we didn’t. I went through it, then David did. I found an awful lot – not mistakes particularly, just opportunities for improvement – and David – with a little trumpet fanfare on each occasion – found the things I’d missed. But our typesetter is as quick as she is patient and sent back a second set on Monday. So all I had to do was to check that the corrections had been made correctly. Wasn’t it?

I am currently enthralled by Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary – the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It was recommended to me in rapid succession by Lindsay Clarke, John Moat and Maggie Ross, so I had to read it, all 500 pages. So far (page 163) I am finding it a continuing revelation that shakes my philosophical foundations (but leaves them intact). As Maggie Ross said in a talk, ‘With neuroscience, you don’t need your neoplatonic philosophy.’ I found that as exciting a prospect as terrifying. So now I’m a little way along in this journey of modern science – science as science should be – open-minded, full-hearted and questing.

One of things it is forcing me to reconsider is attention. I’ve always been taught in my philosophy school that there are three states of attention: focussed, broad and scattered. McGilchrist (so far) has only spoken of the first two and linked them to left hemisphere (focussed) and right (broad). Apparently birds watch for predators with the left eye, and look out for the group with the right one. (I was circled by a little egret recently which I took to be a magical communion across species until I realised I was the subject of a left-eye survey.)

I was speaking to a writing-proof-reading-philosophical friend yesterday, asking him how one might avoid making mistakes in the first place. His reply was ‘pay attention’. Yes, but what kind of attention, and to what? If I were scanning a text looking for typos, then I could practise the attention of the arrow-maker. But I’m not just looking for typos. If I were, I’d have sent the first set of proofs back with less than five corrections when in fact there was a scribble in red on almost every page, PLUS the chapter which had mysteriously got left out (how did that happen?). It seems to me I need to have an eye as much to the wedding procession as to the arrows. I need to have my attention everywhere at once.

Here’s what I’m looking for and finding: typos (these days a euphemism for mis-typing) spelling mistakes, clunky sentences, repetition of words or rhymes or homophones, punctuation (sigh), consistency (this one is complex and of astonishing depths of subtlety, such as when to give pope a capital P and when not to), hyphenated words at line-ends, ambiguities, and downright howlers.

To be honest, I think it all comes down to me in the end. I could pay the earth for the best ever proof reader but he/she wouldn’t find everything, and I’d be the one to discover that, so I may as well do it myself. Godstow Press is an Indie, but mainstream publishers, forever cutting costs and using Spellchecker instead of a human brain, make this an issue of as much – if not more – concern to their authors.

So here I am at the end of the second set and what do I find on the closing pages? Saint Mathew spelt with one ‘t’, and Cosimo de’ Medici referring to Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the Florentine Baptistry as ‘the gates of paradise’ – a sweet metaphor thought up by Michelangelo a generation later. And so, instead of cheering and throwing flower petals over my own head for finding these two things, I suffered deep despair and a building depression,  haunted by the questions, ‘What have I missed?’ and ‘Must I read it again?’

What have I missed? Bring on the gorilla!

In a now famous experiment by Simons and Chabris, subjects were asked to watch a short video clip showing a basketball game in a relatively confined indoor setting. [I’ve struck out the description of the test because it’s more fun to do it yourself: ]

… As they and others have neatly and dramatically demonstrated, we see, at least consciously, only what we are attending to in a focussed way (with the conscious left hemisphere). Since what we select to attend to is guided by our expectations of what it is we are going to see, there is a circularity involved which means we experience more and more only what we already know. Our incapacity to see the most apparently obvious features of the world around us, if they do not fit the template we are currently working with … is so entrenched that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new. [McGilchrist p.163]

Or spot our ommissions.