I’m so glad I didn’t die…

‘I’m so glad I didn’t die on the various occasions I have earnestly wished I might, for I would have missed a lot of lovely weather.’

Elizabeth von Arnim, in a letter.

[#quoteFriday]

Born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Sydney, Australia on 31 August 1866, the prolific and, in her day, hugely successful author ‘Elizabeth’ von Arnim lived a remarkable life that, just for starters, included performing Bach and Liszt on the organ at Bayreuth for Cosima Wagner (Liszt’s daughter) and marrying into the Prussian aristocracy.

Rain or shine, enjoy the weather. And read more about Elizabeth von Arnim.

She is this month’s ‘Author of the Month’ at the LRB Bookshop (from whom I learned of this quote).

Documentation, Disrupted

Just came across this great presentation by Google tech writer Riona MacNamara at WriteTheDocs recent Portland conference (May 19, 2015).

The subject area is technical documentation, and is very interesting on that score. But it’s about so much more – most importantly, what you can achieve by being audacious (but not reckless), focused (but open and generous), and unafraid.

I love the subtle qualifications that make all the difference – audacious, but not reckless, for example. Though note that there is no qualification for unafraid: you’ve just got to be unafraid (or, maybe as likely, feel the fear – and do it anyway. There’s also a lot of good stuff on happiness, work and making a difference.

Now looking at ways to get to the WriteTheDocs conference in Prague.

Anyway, enjoy – and one thought to take away:

“Authority and influence don’t derive from your resumé, but from action and impact.” Riona MacNamara

Handshake addendum

Whilst on the subject (of handshakes), remarks by Professor Peter Piot on Desert Island Discs this morning made fascinating – and poignant – listening.

He is Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an expert on HIV and Ebola.

On a recent trip to Sierra Leone he noticed that the local people have developed new conventions for greeting – the ‘Ebola shake’ – in order to avoid the touching of hands which, in the presence of Ebola, can be deadly.

Men are greeting each other by touching elbows; Women, a touch on the dress.

He emphasised what a significant change this was in a culture where “touch is huge” and making a physical connection when you greet someone is deeply rooted.

It will be interesting to see if this marks a permanent change or whether, after the epidemic, people return to shaking hands.

You can listen to the clip here, and the entire programme here.

And incidentally (I’m just discovering this subject is huge!), listen to how campaigner and supreme networker Julia Cleverdon’s “fingers itch every time I arrive at a gathering” here.

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Ripeness is all

I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native for a walk I’m leading. The strange thing about Hardy is that you seem to feel the need to offer an excuse as to why you’re reading him, or maybe that’s just me. But anyway –

Clym Yeobright (the ‘Native’) has recently returned to Egdon Heath, where he was born, and has just told some of the local inhabitants, denizens of the heath as he was, that he plans to remain close to the heath and open a school. Whilst they say nothing, they are clearly taken aback; Why would someone who had escaped the heath and become a diamond-seller in Paris choose to return to this poor, backwater of a place – a place that everyone else dreams of leaving?

Thorncombe-3-web

The answer is that Clym has become an idealist.

Yeobright loved his kind. He had a conviction that the want of most men was knowledge of a sort which brings wisdom rather than affluence.

However, because of his studious time in Paris, he was far in advance of his erstwhile fellow inhabitants of the heath – ‘the rural world was not ripe for him.’

‘A man should be only partially before his time: to be completely in the vanguard in aspirations is fatal to fame [ … ] Successful propagandists have succeeded because the doctrine they bring into form is that which their listeners have for some time felt without being able to shape.’

Doesn’t this just perfectly describe Steve Jobs, by the way, and in particular the iPad? Just enough ahead of the game, and able to fulfil aspirations that people were only dimly aware that they had.

But, unlike Jobs – at least in his speeches – Hardy is scornful of idealism:

‘Was Yeobright’s mind well-proportioned? No. A well-proportioned mind is one which shows no particular bias … It would never would have allowed Yeobright to do such a ridiculous thing as throw up his business [he was a diamond seller in Paris] to benefit his fellow-creatures.’

Yeobright dares to dream – and is punished for it.

By this time in his life Hardy had endured scorn and rejection himself – in people’s low expectations of the kind of job he might aspire to, and in the way his (now) in-laws had looked down upon him as the suitor of their daughter. Despite winning the woman and succeeding in the career he had set his hopes on – to be a writer – he allowed these early slights to colour his whole outlook.

Incidentally, not wholly unlike Picasso who, as John Richardson recounts in his biography of the artist, never forgave the lack of interest from dealers during his early years in Paris. But I digress.

Hardy damns Clym’s idealism, and throughout his novels those who aspire to escape the position into which they are born tend to pay a heavy price. Just think of Jude. And Clym.

I wonder if the reason Hardy feels so unfashionable right now is that in contradiction to today’s (welcome) mantra of ‘Yes you can!,’ Hardy seems intent on saying ‘No, you can’t’ and insisting on the insignificance of the individual. Despite the fact that he made it all the way to the top.

He is buried in Westminster Abbey – except for his heart. That’s back home in Dorset, in Stinsford churchyard, close to his birthplace. And the heath.

Carpe Diem – Proust on fishing

water-birch

There’s no irony (is there?) that a novel the length of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is in fact about seizing the moment – or rather, trying to understand / appreciate / experience the full depth of every moment.

In this it is closer to the more accurate rendition of the phrase ‘carpe diem’ as ‘enjoy the day, pluck the day when it is ripe.’ (thank you, phrases.org.uk).

Here he is on catching the fleeting glance of a stranger through the window of a carriage travelling in the opposite direction:

… as soon as her individuality, a soul still vague, a will unknown to me, presented a tiny picture of itself, enormously reduced but complete, in the depths of her indifferent eyes, at once, by a mysterious response of the pollen ready in me for the pistils that should receive it, I felt surging through me the embryo, equally vague, equally minute, of the desire not to let this girl pass without forcing her mind to become aware of my person, without preventing her desires from wandering to someone else, without insinuating myself into her dreams and taking possession of her heart. Meanwhile our carriage had moved on; the pretty girl was already behind us; and as she had—of me—none of those notions which constitute a person in one’s mind, her eyes, which had barely seen me, had forgotten me already.

For Proust, every day is ripe for the picking; it is only habit and familiarity (and laziness) that dulls our vivid experience of every moment.

In the first place, the impossibility of stopping when we meet a woman, the risk of not meeting her again another day, give her at once the same charm as a place derives from the illness or poverty that prevents us from visiting it, or the lustreless days which remain to us to live from the battle in which we shall doubtless fall. So that, if there were no such thing as habit, life must appear delightful to those of us who are continually under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.

And to fully appreciate every moment, it’s no good standing back, on the sidelines:

in the state of mind in which we “observe” we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.

To truly catch the fleeting moment we need to engage our imagination:

We need, between us and the fish which, if we saw it for the first time cooked and served on a table, would not appear worth the endless shifts and wiles required to catch it, the intervention, during our afternoons with the rod, of the rippling eddy to whose surface come flashing, without our quite knowing what we intend to do with them, the bright gleam of flesh, the hint of a form, in the fluidity of a transparent and mobile azure.

Proust on fishing! Who knew?! It certainly slipped by me first time around. But caught this time. All of which is to say, in a roundabout way, that after a break I’m just limbering up for Volume III: The Guermantes Way.

Starting Over

The ability to start over, forgive (oneself and/or others) and move on: isn’t this at the heart of personal success, as well as the ongoing success/prosperity of nations?

An aside in Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which I’ve just begun and is every bit as engrossing and electrifyingly well written as its predecessor, Wolf Hall, suddenly brought this to my mind. Cromwell, he, reflecting:

 A generation on, lapses must be forgiven, reputations remade, otherwise England cannot go forward, she will keep spiralling backwards into the dirty past.

Forget the past and you cannot learn from it, live in the past and you stagnate. Or, in terms of nationhood, the murderous stupidity of Pol Pot’s year zero or the disastrous consequences of the Kanun, the Law of Lek (Book 10, ch. 3) and the blood feud that can engulf families (even blight whole districts) for generations. This is the subject of Ismail Kadare’s excellent novel Broken Spring.

He not busy being born is busy dyin’ as Bob Dylan once wrote: well, it’s alright Ma, (I’m only bleeding). By coincidence, while writing this, the latest email from Chris Guillebeau (The Art of Non-Conformity) just dropped into my inbox, on ‘Destiny, Influence, and the Impossibility of Being Self-Taught, which ends:

The point is that we all learn from one another every day. You can learn to improve yourself, or to advance in a discipline. You can also pass on your knowledge and influence to others…

Things that seem small at first will come along and affect the remainder of our lives. Is it due to fate, chance, or destiny?

Sometimes it’s hard to say for sure. And does it really matter? Either way, lives are changed, and the next step is up to you.

Realism and disappointment

On the art of non-conformity facebook page a few days ago: ‘Every time someone tells you to “be realistic” they are asking you to compromise your ideals.’

The election results for the Liberal Democrats were as ‘disappointing’ as Nick Clegg described them as, after all the speculation the election landscape remains a two horse race with the electorate declining to signal decisively in favour of electoral reform.

Why did the Lib Dems fail to translate breakthrough in the opinion polls into breakthrough in the real poll? I think their campaign ran out of steam after the second week. Putting on my amateur psychologist hat, the reason for that, I think, was because Clegg was determined to remain ‘realistic’ in expectations – prompted partly, I suspect, by fear of having the equivalent of David Steel’s ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ clip following him around for the rest of his life. But this time was different and he should have grasped the nettle, particularly after the second debate, and concentrated on what he and the LibDems would want to do, in terms of policy and action, not simply repeating the (negative) formula ‘we’re not the other two’.

The difficulty is to know when a bit of realism might be a good idea – and when not.

Incidentally, my take on Tony Blair and the Iraq war – history had a similar role to play: the fear of repeating Chamberlain’s ‘here is the paper’ mistake (combined with the desire to emulate Thatcher and the Falklands). Hopefully the fear of repeating Blair’s mistake (combined with lack of funds) may rein in enthusiasm for new foreign adventures for a while.

Congratulations, incidentally, to Harvey Taylor for a consistently positive contribution to the election, as an Independent candidate in Bournemouth West.

Cities of the mind

The inter-city train that Harvey (Taylor of HBT) set in motion in his incisive and characteristically exuberant presentation at the recent Shires BusinessXchange meeting has been running around my mind ever since and prompting searching questions –

Have I got the balance between Domesti and Auda right; Am I in Nebulo, when I should be in Specifi; And what about the balance between Complexi and Simpli (and here he gave us a wonderful quote from Einstein ‘Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler’); Most important of all, am I living in Authenti…?

And thinking about Harvey’s cities got me thinking about, and then re-reading, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, that extraordinary book of imagined cities, of states of mind and experience, of dreams and desire, of images and ideas. The world, parsed through an infinite series of possibilities.

Take the ‘grey stone metropolis’ of Fedora, for example, in the centre of which ‘stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room.’ ..

These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.

On the map of your empire, O Great Khan, there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only assumptions. The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.

[Cities & Desire 4, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian from William Weaver, Picador]

And then I found this series of ravishing images, inspired by Invisible Cities. The image for Zora is above:

Zora’s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced.

See the whole set, by magic fly paula, here.

If you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.