Not screaming but printing

girlsOnBridge_wood_3With apologies to Stevie Smith, this was the phrase that accompanied me around the stunning exhibition of Edvard Munch prints at the British Museum (on till 21 July – you have no excuse) on a hot May afternoon in central London. I have come across Munch as printmaker before, not least because he corresponded with Nikolai Astrup, a fellow Norwegian printmaker and artist, and I have read a lot about him. The two of them were responsible for bringing woodcut back to prominence in Norwegian art, though they never met.

This exhibition, however, has both things I knew of – the woodcuts, especially the ones that were done using his jigsaw technique when he used a fretsaw to separate out the blocks and ink them separately – and the vast array of etchings, lithographs (both monochrome and polychrome), drypoint and other intaglio prints, that I had never seen.

s-l300 And they were wonderful, a marvellous exposition of the printmaker’s competence, Munch’s emotional range, and the way that he used his life experiences to create an understanding of anguish and loneliness that is difficult enough to reproduce in paint, never mind in the more technical and “industrial” world of printmaking. Unlike the wonderful Kathe Kollwitz, one of the greatest printmakers of German Expressionism, whose subtle lithographs and overpowering monochrome woodcuts seem to belong to two separate art worlds, all Munch’s prints are so full of expression, both in wood and in copper and stone, that it is only after a while that you begin to recognise the differences. Some of the prints, especially those where he used the “open bite” technique to create tone, are as subtle as Kollwitz’s, but many have the bold lines associated with expressionist woodcuts that made this artform so suited to the expressionist movement. In a print like Anxiety, shown at the bottom of this post, it is hard at first to recognise it as a lithograph, because the bold expressionism is so suited to woodcut, and could have been done in that medium.

The exhibition comes to an end with work produced in the 5-7 years after the First World War. The last 20-25 years of his life, when he lived peacefully on his estate outside Oslo (and where he died in 1944) are not covered here.

ps110992_lInterestingly, and this is not just because of its use as a motif for the exhibition and its transfer to the tourist tat that all museums flog off as you “exit through the gift shop,” the Scream gets in the way in this exhibition. Perhaps it is the familiarity with an image which is so linear and striking, but Munch’s famous quote about the scream penetrating the landscape, and the explanations that try and find more meaning in it than Munch himself allowed, almost detract from the astonishing beauty of his colour woodcuts and the pieces – like the Vampire, below – which are technically amazing lithograph prints.

NG.KH.A.18996_3_pressebildeThe exhibition is brilliantly curated and easy to navigate, and makes a lot of the symbolism and other influences on Munch’s work, which took place in the free-thinking, anarchistic (Eugene Grasset’s The Acid Thrower is included as one of the printmaking influences) and increasingly amoral landscape in which Munch worked and lived in Oslo (then still named Kristiania), Berlin and Paris. He was clearly restless  and this restlessness powered a lot of his art.

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I got to thinking about him and Astrup, both schooled in Norwegian Lutheranism, but each reacting to that in a different way. Munch could hardly wait to escape the confines of his father’s pietism (who himself had a Lutheran pastor father), and eventually embraced Nietzsche’s will to power as the supreme expression of individualism, against the suffocating image of God portrayed in his father’s view of Him. This led to a view of the world that was so anarchic, so full of despair, that perhaps all he could hear in it was an agonising scream. Astrup was brought up in the church and stayed close to his geographic and agrarian roots, painting and appreciating the role that the church played in rural Norwegian life. Both had a strong sense of their Norwegian identities and each were rooted in a particular home-place to which they would return either to live or visit often.

anxiety_litho_3When you look at the light and the power of landscape in Astrup’s work, which borders on the mythological at times, it is very different from the low light, often moonlight, in Munch’s work. There is no scream in Astrup, just the beauty of ordered, and often domestic, life. One runs from God, the other honours Him. Both of these motivations, stances, psychological histories have brought us a rich artistic expression and I was really grateful to have seen both great painters from a country I love, in London, within a space of three years!

The purpose and nature of roots

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I wrote this blog post last November, after a visit to South Wales in the autumn. Both my Swansea uncle and my Merthyr aunt, mentioned below, have sadly died since this was written and Sally and I have have been privileged to attend their funerals. With my Dad’s death earlier in the year, it was a big hit for that generation of late octogenarians and nonagenarians who have filled out one particular horizontal section of my large Welsh family tree. Anyway, here is the post from last year…


We have just spent a weekend in and around a part of the world – Swansea, Merthyr and the Neath Valley, which is a rich part of our family experience and history.

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My dad’s family has owned a house in the Uplands of Swansea since 1939, and the whole of the intervening nearly 80 years are reflected in the interior design, paintings and prints, furniture, book collections and lack of double glazing or central heating that you might expect from a house continually lived in by my aunt and her husband. It is a beautiful house with large magnolia trees, lots of painted woodwork, mouldings, internal and external stained glass windows and for as long as I remember, it was our extended family home. It was a place of jokes, endless games of Scrabble, cold toilets – inside and outside – and cats (a series of them, mostly grey ruffians from the streets of the city who adopted my aunt). There are bits of kit and furniture that bring back memories, stories and experiences. The white-painted balcony behind the sitting room, that leads down to a sunken garden with the magnolias, will forever be the place I remember my mum and dad sitting in the sunshine on the day my aunt got married in 1969. The upstairs is a very wonder – a whole self-contained flat that used to be lived in my my great aunt Betty and her husband, a successful Chrysler salesman whose monthly triumphs were marked by a growing series of small televisions and cut-glass decanters. The upstairs flat, big enough not to need it, has a “spare room” – a beautiful, white wood-walled bedroom built into the roof with a dormer window onto the slate roof gully, so my dad was able to sneak out there and sunbathe on the roof as a child, as did I. It is my favourite room, full of books, mostly about cats, old copies of the National Geographic, bolsters on the bed, and absolutely freezing in the winter. The upstairs flat was always a hospitable place for family once great aunt Betty and her husband died. It still has electric blankets in the bedrooms and beautiful ottomans at the end of each bed. The front bedroom of the flat was where I learnt to love the writing of Laurie Lee.

Spending time in the house with my aunt and her husband (collective age 181) was a delight of conversation, crossword completion (in lieu of Scrabble). We followed it up by a long walk along the beach in Swansea Bay, up to the university and back, then fish and chips in a warm chip shop opposite Joe’s ice-cream parlour (which everyone in Swansea, and large parts of west Wales, knows – another part of my childhood).

DSC04600The Sunday we started by watching the sunrise on Aberafan Beach, probably my favourite beach anywhere, under the shadow of the majestic cranes in Port Talbot, and the chimney smoke from the steelworks beyond. 2 hours on such a beach before breakfast is treasure enough, but then we had a long phone call with a dear friend in Neath who we were not able to visit but wanted to contact. She and her husband (he died 5 years ago) were missionaries for WEC in Thailand and Indonesia for years and have always remained the most positive and faith-filled people we know: our mum and dad in Christ for the 6 years we had a house in Neath, where the children grew up.

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Then another long walk, from Pont Nedd Fechan toward Sgwd Gwladys, one of the beautiful waterfalls at the top end of the Neath Valley: memories of our best friends in Brecon who with their children would join us as we shimmied behind waterfalls and careered through overgrown industrial landscapes long since reclaimed by beech and oak forests.

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And then to Merthyr – more precisely, Vaynor – where we paid a surprise visit to an aunt and uncle who live up above the Pontsarn viaduct on the road to Pontsticill in the Taf Fechan valley. The surprise was the fact that the road had been washed away three weeks ago and we had to walk for the last half mile. Another gorgeous house, lived in continually since before the war – my aunt living in the house that her mum (my great aunt Millie, the youngest sister of my grandfather) and her husband lived in all their lives. We got there as the parch was coming to offer communion to my aunt, and at the same time as another uncle from Cefn Coed y Cymmer was paying a visit (he is local, and so a collapsed mountain road was not an obstacle).

We were away for precisely a single night, but we felt as though we had spent a week away, so rich were the sights and attached memories.

Why this personal story? As Wendell Berry has shown us, and as is evident in the richness of world literature, the visiting and revisiting of family roots is a critical part of our humanity. It is part of God’s purposes that we look to the rock from which we were cut, that we respect and dwell within the shape of the families that birthed and formed us, and that we find our place within them. A cursory look at the rootlessness of our world, and the instability that it causes, is enough to cause us concern. Social mobility is part of this – the downside of what is otherwise seen as an economic good. For somebody like me, who has lived all over the world, and been sent to boarding schools “to get a good education” (it worked, thankfully; touch and go at times), then the sense of rootedness becomes emotionally more important. Belonging is part of what it means to be human.

But so is memory. And this is more of a concern. Memory is nurtured – and nurtured principally through the rehearsing of story within family, within the practices of our family lives, within the “do you remember” moments of married couples looking back on their lives, of adult children talking to their parents, and the very old preserving and speaking out those memories which all others, connected to devices, have forgotten or pushed out. Such memories are treasured and not often written down. Fewer and fewer keep diaries, and the things that are diarised are often more personal or relational, and less culturally revelatory.


That was the post, or as far as I had got. Nothing I have not said before or alluded to, but it brought everything into the sharp light of reality, the cycle of life and death and change that I live in. If for a moment we as educators detach ourselves from this rooted awareness of ourselves and our children in the midst of time, place and memory, we are barking up the wrong tree altogether. We are transmitting, not educating.

On collective worship as deliberate interruption of schooling

maxresdefaultToday is the day when all English 11 year-olds in state schools begin their SATs tests. Some of them will have been invited to a special breakfast to make sure that they have enough calories in them to quell any hunger pangs. The camaraderie and anticipation engendered by special breakfasts will make today a special day and maybe even help. For us, last year, it was a joyous thing, involving many adults and most children.

For those in schools I know and love, I trust that the children will have been well taught, prepared and encouraged to do as well in these tests as they can. For all that the tests are an unnecessary diversion from teaching and learning, children often enjoy the format, willingly accept the challenge and look forward to doing well in them.

One thing that will not be high on the agenda for most Year 6 children today will be collective worship. Either it will be regarded as a distraction (by those – mainly school leaders – who benefit from SATs outcomes), or there will be time pressures (Y6 teachers are often keen to get on with the tests as early in the morning as is possible), or the whole week will be put aside by the school as an assessment week and collective worship will be quietly relegated until Friday. For some schools, SATs week is the highlight of the year, the purpose of learning, the culmination of all the children’s school career, and collective worship may not have much of a role to play in it. That is both sad (for the children), and complete tosh (as a perception of the purpose of schooling). The fact that this might even pertain in a number of church schools is worrying, because it demonstrates that instead of looking to their own identity and mission, such schools have accepted another definition of their core purpose and denied their children the grace that flows from well-led collective worship.

For a long time I have known and believed strongly that worship – whether corporate, in churches, among believers; or collective, in schools, among a mixed community – is a highly political act. It is a declaration of the sovereignty of God in a world that thinks that there might be better things to worship and better gods around which to order their lives: against this, Christian and Jewish worship has always asserted God’s (YHWH’s) rule over the earth. In Christian terms, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus has brought about a political change which Tom Wright sums up well: if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. In terms that Eugene Peterson described, this post-resurrection worship is being “present to the presence” and reorienting our lives toward Jesus’ eternal kingdom and toward His future.

Collective worship in schools is not just something we do to fulfill a statutory duty (although, God knows, few enough secondary schools even do that much!). It is a deliberate reformation of priority within our schools, a re-calling to the central purpose of our humanity, to honour and pay attention to a God who is central to their being, whether they believe that or not. Collective worship is central because of its community-forming power, its identity-sustaining force, before God. It sets out a different array of priorities. It interrupts the “political” life of the school – those priorities that are all about achievement, progress, order, behaviour management – and reminds us that in all the things we do to bring about shalom in our school, they are as nothing if we do not acknowledge the presence and power of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ behind them. This is a deliberate interruption, one in which we expect to change and shift perception. In his book Political Worship, Bernd Wannenwetsch says that worship grants us a certain inertia, a time of waiting, or waiting upon God, that is deeply helpful in creating space for us:

Worship again and again interrupts the course of the world. Through worship the Christian community testifies that the world is not on its own. And this also means that it is not kept alive by politics, as the business of politics, which knows no Sabbath, would have us believe.

This is why the celebration of worship is not directed simply against this or that totalitarian regime; it is directed against the totalisation of political existence in general (pp. 126-127).

Collective worship suspends certain priorities for that time and reminds us of more ancient, long-lasting ones. It sets a different array of priorities at the heart of the school. Yes, it may support learning and achievement, it may contribute to the health of relationships, it may help children’s and adults’ mental health, it may help children’s behaviour, and hopefully all these things will flow from good quality collective worship, but these are not really the point.

The point is that we can stand before God, in whatever relationship we have with him, reorienting ourselves, reordering our expectations away from shopping or pupil progress or whatever immediacy occupies our frontal lobes, refocusing away from productivity, slowing down deliberately, assuming the mantle of His workrate. In the words of the Rev JH Jowett, we “release the strain, moderate the pace.” In the words of Psalm 123:

I lift my eyes to you,
    O God, enthroned in heaven.
We keep looking to the Lord our God for his mercy,
    just as servants keep their eyes on their master,
    as a slave girl watches her mistress for the slightest signal

(vv. 1-2 New Living Translation)

We lift our eyes – and in doing so make a political act that says that God and his kingdom are the reality in which we live – and then watch and wait, learning to live God’s life at his pace, not at the frenetic one that schools seem to think is a mark of good productivity.

Collective worship therefore becomes a grace-abundant place in our schools where we can laugh, sing, pray, be still and joy together in shalom. This is why it is important to pray peace over the school assembled together at such times, inviting God to be present in shalom. As the prophet Jonah realised, from deep within the belly of the fish that swallowed him, the pursuit of worthless idols helps nobody:

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. (Jonah 2: 8-9)

Finally, a confession. When I was head at Christ the Sower, I reluctantly allowed children to be withdrawn from collective worship to do extra interventions. I was wrong to agree to that (never mind that I broke the law in so doing!). I was wrong not to insist that they attend collective worship, and I allowed myself to be swayed by my leadership team who had legitimate concerns for the children’s learning. In an important respect, I denied them the grace that could have been theirs, and I am sorry that that happened. I was wrong also to accede to my Y6 teachers’ requests to withdraw children from collective worship on the days of their SATs tests. In doing so, I ascribed too much importance to the tests and their outcomes, and undermined their faith in so doing. If our collective worship had been dull and uninteresting, then I can see the point, but they rarely were. But the children missed the opportunity to receive the affirmation of the whole school in what they were attempting, and that too, was a means of grace.

Perhaps, in our modern schooling, the idolatry of SATs is just too strong. If that is the case, then our worship together must assume even more vital, life-enhancing importance.

Teacher autonomy in the classroom

2328PV-hillier-history-3-originalJust about three years ago I posted our convictions as leaders at Christ the Sower about what teacher autonomy meant within our (fairly light) accountability structure. Set in a collaborative framework, we defined teacher autonomy as:

Teachers’ autonomy means that teachers will have freedom to choose what to improve and how to do it, tailored to the needs of themselves and their children. We hope teachers will fully understand and embrace this freedom and feel their work is valued as a ‘unique treasure’. Teacher development will be focused (deliberately practising new things) and supported by colleagues in school. Teachers will easily be able to say what it is they are working on for improvement and the impact it is having on their children. They will drive, and take responsibility for, improvements in teaching and learning. If they are struggling, teachers will know which tools are available to help them and will be willing to use them.

I am not sure that now I would write it exactly the same way, but the need for teacher autonomy in the current accountability climate is no less than it was then.  It is the root of professionalism, a culmination of the fact that teachers must have degrees to teach (and I defend that policy) and a consequence of our createdness in community. Those leaders who think that compliance is some kind of public virtue, even in church schools, have taken a swipe at the image of God in their teachers. Yes, there are agreed ways of doing things, and agreed practices in a democratic (or benignly directive) culture that will be recognised by all – this is the root of what John West Burnham refers to as “consensual authoritarianism” – so as to contribute to community. “We do this, in this way, for the good of others and the long term benefit of our whole community.” This is the basis of law in democracies. People can see that laws are good for us because of the impact of them on daily life or through a consideration of NOT having that law in place.

The assessment- and target-cultures of schools mitigate to some extent against teacher autonomy, but even with those constraints in place, it is possible to do better than we do. Some schools are reported as having used the accountability structure to encourage thinking to have stopped altogether, and turn the teacher back into a delivery-man or -woman.

Yesterday I was asked to review a piece of writing on the aims-based curriculum for the CCT. It was a lovely little summary but it raised for me some questions about teacher autonomy and the extent to which in our classrooms, so much of what is really important is taken away from the teacher. A discussion of the aims-based curriculum must necessarily take into account teacher autonomy, because of the extent to which teaching flows from the head and heart – and thus the independent decision-making ability of teachers. Thinking has to be at the heart of the educational process, and those adults (I have heard of one school where this was actually said to teachers) who are encouraged not to think but just to comply, should talk to their unions.

Within a school it is good to have systems that lead to consistency. But consistency is a different animal from uniformity. Consistency enables a user of a system (in schools, that is a child or a parent) to be certain of a particular attitude and provision within a class. It might encourage the expectation that learning in one class might be built upon in the next, in a way that all could understand. It might extend to the way that a school teaches a particular aspect of a subject – spelling, or times tables, or reading – and it is good and helpful to everyone to have these sorts of consistent systems. Likewise, our long emphasis on restorative practice meant that parents would learn the system and that they could benefit from it too. But to ask teachers to leave their brains at the door of the class and to stand only as deliverers (albeit skilled deliverers) of systems, schemes of work and programs is both demeaning for them, and shortchanging the children. As long as we pay little attention to the relationship between the child and the teacher, then we will be in hock to a transmission model of education that focuses all its energy on getting stuff into children.

Contrast this with a lovely quote I found in a paper by Pat Hannam and Gert Biesta yesterday:

Where the existential dimension is included, the role of the teacher becomes that of  bringing the child to attend, not to any particular thing necessarily but to a different position in relation to the world. In understanding her role as bringing the child to ‘attention, intellectual humility and discernment’ (S. Weil 1965, Waiting on God) the teacher has scope for bringing all ways in which it is possible to live a life into the classroom. There will be intellectual engagement but also discernment regarding how to live life, as the child’s beginnings meet those of others. The teacher has a responsibility here in all the many ways she lives and moves with children in the school. Clearly the possibilities from this are less than certain, however….this is how action is possible and where the public sphere can exist.

Hannam, P. & Biesta, G. (2019). Religious education, a matter of understanding? Reflections on the final report of the Commission on Religious Education. Journal of
Beliefs & Values, 40 (1): 55-62

“Scope for bringing all ways in which it is possible to live a life into the classroom” is a lovely descriptor of the teacher’s task, and is reflected through the “discernment regarding how to live a life” through the “many ways she lives and moves with children in the school.”

This is something we know when we see it. I can name you teachers right now, under huge pressure to “produce results” (which are generally worthless by and of themselves) who embody this discernment regarding how to live a life. And in this, winsomely and often beautifully, they reflect their autonomy as teachers.

Fruitfulness and blessing (2)

The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household (2 Samuel 6:11)

1ch13_13This is a small aside in the larger story of King David’s capture of Jerusalem, his determination that it should be his royal palace and centre of government and therefore should be the place where the tabernacle and centre of Israel’s worship would be situated. I love this story, especially the bit about David just getting down to his royal underwear (a linen ephod was pretty much that) and celebrating furiously to the Lord at maximum volume and to the accompaniment of (v.5) “castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals”. That would have been worth watching.

Unfortunately, during the transport of the ark to Jerusalem, a man called Uzzah, who was supposed to be watching out for the stability of the ark as it was pulled by oxen, put his hand out to steady it and he died for his irreverence. David was angry and afraid and asked a man called Obed-Edom to look after it as he could not see his way clear to bringing it to the tabernacle in Jerusalem. I am not sure that the Brick Testament picture above quite does justice to the story but I like the Brick Testament because it reminds us of the difficult questions in the Bible in a strong and irreverent way.

But here, it just made me wonder what exactly happened. What did the blessing consist of? And did Obed-edom and his family have to put up with three months of people coming and going to sacrifice their animals in their back field, with tents set up for all the priests? Or did the priests get a holiday and deal with the backlog once the thing was set up in Jerusalem 3 months later? None of this is explained.

However, the blessing was obviously real, more than enough to alert David to the fact that he ought to take the ark of the Lord back to Jerusalem:

Now it was reported to King David, “The LORD has blessed the house of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and had the ark of God brought up from the house of Obed-edom into the City of David with rejoicing. (2 Samuel 6:12)

So, if it was important enough for David to make a move and realise that he could go and fetch the ark to Jerusalem, then it should be explored a bit further, as I don’t suppose there are are that many people of my acquaintance who would not want their household blessed by God.

Psalm 128 says this:

How joyful are those who fear the Lord—
all who follow his ways!
2 You will enjoy the fruit of your labor.
How joyful and prosperous you will be!
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful grapevine,
flourishing within your home.
Your children will be like vigorous young olive trees
as they sit around your table.
4 That is the Lord’s blessing
for those who fear him.

5 May the Lord continually bless you from Zion.
May you see Jerusalem prosper as long as you live.
6 May you live to enjoy your grandchildren.
May Israel have peace!

This might be a start in our understanding. But were there other effects? A sort of miracle-gro for crops and fruit trees? Perhaps a steroid-like enhancement for cattle? Everything, I Samuel tells us, was blessed. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Sometimes in the old and new testaments, there are conditions for this blessing:

Oh, the joys of those who do not
follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand around with sinners,
or join in with mockers.
2 But they delight in the law of the Lord,
meditating on it day and night.
3 They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
and they prosper in all they do. (Psalm 1:1-3 New Living Translation)

You can read similar encouragements in Proverbs 1 and in 2 Peter 1: things you do before you get blessed. But most of the time it is just God’s grace. Obed-edom didn’t have to take the ark. He could have seen Uzzah’s demise and said “Er…no, mate. Take it round the back to Azariah – just what he’s after, an ark. Been talking about getting one for ages.”

Supposing God gives us things for a season that will mean that we are completely blessed? Do we always see them? Do we see them as routes into fruitfulness?

Today is an anniversary for me. 40 years ago I decided to follow Jesus as a disciple, fairly haphazardly and disobediently for most of the time, but hoping that I can please Him as much as I am able. There have been things in my life that I did not expect to bless me, but which have. I didn’t know them at the time, and didn’t make the link. Sometimes other people do. David heard that Obed-edom was blessed, but who told him? Did Obed-edom recognise it himself or was it something seen by others? Maybe he found it easier to be kind and helpful, and others benefitted? Who knows? But what we can know is that those things that God puts into our life to bless us will have an impact. And the fruitfulness and the obedience it encourages are the reasons we can look back over many years and say, like Jacob leaning on his staff, Lord, truly, truly, I am blessed. Thank you.

Schools – alternatives of hope

WP_20190426_09_43_41_ProAt BERA’s Special Interest Group on Alternative Education held on Friday at the OU’s Camden site, English schooling got a right kicking from academics, home-schoolers, alt-ed researchers and those on the left of the free school movement.

OU-252x300-2-252x300I had gone to the meeting because it was cheap, for a start (well done, BERA!); secondly, I went to do some networking, because that is the world I seem to be in at the moment; thirdly, I went because I wanted to see what people were up to (and what worked) when school as a concept was dismissed as basically ineffective, poor value for money and a restriction on children’s learning (good arguments can be advanced for all of these positions, whether or not they are immediately practical or not). Assessment was given the treatment it justly deserves by Peter Twining from the OU (why should assessment and national tests govern what we teach and thus narrow the curriculum?) and opportunities provided for very engaged, but quite middle-class, home-schoolers to demonstrate some of their networking and philosophical approaches. The self-managed learning group from Brighton got more of a say than perhaps they deserved, but that was more of a chairing issue than anything else (if you can’t say what you want to say in an hour, then…)

In the midst of it all, forming the period before lunch, was an opportunity to hear a series of five short presentations about different aspects of the alt-ed world, and it was here where the impact was really felt. The session began with Darren Webb (Univ Sheffield) talking about pedagogies of hope, and this was followed by Nikki O’Rourke talking about their “Institute of Imagination” – a multi-generational space that constituted a “museum” in Vauxhall. It was interesting because it took family as a guiding principle for the heart of what they wanted to do. Anything that got in the way of that, or imposed any kind of homogeneity was rejected or challenged. Also speaking in these small slots was an impassioned Luke Freedman from Phoenix Education, who had started out trying to be a primary teacher in Scotland and ended up working alongside people with a much wider view of what education should be. This was followed by Sophie Christophy, also from the Phoenix Education Trust, talking about an initiative in consent-based education called the Cabin. Peter Humphreys from the Centre for Personalised Education finished the session, but by that time, the boundaries of our thinking had been pushed quite wide and his input did not have any impact on me.

There were some genuinely really imaginative and committed people trying to find ways of educating outside the mainstream perception of what school looks like, and I enjoyed the challenge.

I came away with the feeling that just one presentation – that by Darren Webb at Sheffield – had really raised the important questions. Peter Twining’s input did cover a lot of the necessary ground as to why the current approach to teaching and learning is failing children, but somewhere in the middle of it the sharpness of the main questions was erased. And being a professor of education futures, there was not a respectful view of the past. In fact, trying to find a respectful view of the past at all during the day was hard. People talked about learning as though families and children had no historical hinterland. People talked about “spaces” without any appreciation for the role of place in our lives (Peter Kraftl’s presentation later did mention this to some degree, but I had left by then). The understanding of community as a place of learning was not included in these spaces, as far as I could see. Everything was detached from what had gone before.

The one exception, and the presentation that got me thinking – because it asked the right questions – was Darren Webb’s. His short talk was entitled Pedagogies of Hope. The title harked back to Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and it was the only presentation that began to point to issues of social injustice in our education system. Most of the rest of what we saw was at times, very middle class (a point that Peter Kraftl’s presentation made forthrightly, and which Ian Cunningham’s self-managed learning presentation made by default).

The central philosophical question Darren approached was how to define hope in the current climate. His view of hope was that if it had any traction at all, it had to be transformative. He therefore approached it like this:

Transformative hope is characterised by:

  • a profound confidence in the capacity of human beings to construct (both imaginatively and materially) new ways of organising life, and
  • a commitment to purposive action through which humans become the agents of their own destiny and wilfully strive to create a new and better world.

This led to the key question of the day:

How and in what ways can the school, the university, the classroom, the seminar room, become sites of transformative hope and utopian possibility?

This cut right through the “middle-class-ness” of some of the other presentations, and through the theoretical mire (my notes had a ruder word!) of those who dismissed mainstream schooling as passé or irrelevant. Quoting bell hooks’ description of a classroom as “a place where paradise can be created,” Darren asked (and this was the second best question of the day):

What places and spaces of possibility can still be found within educational institutions and how can teachers and and lecturers best position themselves within these spaces in order to nurture and cultivate transformative hope among their students?

You can see where this might be going, and duly we went there. Utopia is the opposite of dystopia, and dystopia describes the kind of fictional world in which many young adults now choose to immerse themselves in, a “cultural milieu in which many young adults now live” – a world without rules or order, without constraints, where alternative means of social organisation have to be formed, often by young people themselves, to make sense of their world. Because of this, the link between dystopia and education is in need of close examination if we are going to restore what Darren called the beauty of possibility to our schools.

My own reflections on this were sad ones, actually. Partly because the need for such utopian thinking by all those present was obviously needed in a world constrained by narrow assessment-driven agendas, and by the failure of the intellectual and political classes to proffer any kind of hope at all; but more because there are a body of schools, 25% or so of the national total, whose hope is rooted in the certainty of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we do hardly anything about it. We don’t make it count, and our view of what that hope could be is constantly submitted to the overarching standardisation flowing from the DfE and OFSTED.

(OFSTED, by the way, did not get a look in all day at this conference. It was – literally – as though they did not exist. Only Ian Cunningham mentioned them once, and it was so refreshing to hear educators and academics do their work and live their lives outside of the inspector’s remit.)

I came away thinking: where were church schools in all this? Why are we not at the forefront of utopian thinking? Why are we not pushing the boundaries of what true freedom could mean and challenging some of the alternative educational models on display today?

In my notes I wrote that “a church school imagination should be able to root such a great hope not in a utopian structure, but fully in the liberty of the gospel and the transformative hope of the kingdom of God.”

Some may answer: well, look at the CofE vision for education – that has a whole section on hope. The Diocese of Ely summary of that section of the vision goes like this:

Educating for Hope and Aspiration: Educating for “Hope” is about how we approach the future and, in Christian teaching, is bound up with hope in God’s future for the world. Every pupil should be encouraged to stretch themselves spiritually, morally, intellectually, imaginatively and actively as well as being well-educated. Hope also helps us cope wisely with things and people going wrong. It shows us that bad experiences, bad behaviour and wrongdoing need not have the last word, there is always room for healing situations, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The section from the full vision text includes these words:

Jesus and the love he embodies are at the heart of our faith, offering hope that wrongdoing and sin,suffering, evil and death are not the last word about reality. The drama of his life, teaching, death and resurrection,set within the larger story of God’s involvement with the whole of creation and history, is fundamental not only to affirming the goodness of life but also to facing and finding ways through whatever goes wrong with ourselves and our communities. He inspires both a realism about how flawed and fallible we are and a confidence in transformation for the better. Even while involved in much difficulty, disappointment, failure, suffering and even tragedy, our trust and hope in Jesus inspires perseverance, patience, gratitude, openness to surprises, and celebration. Church schools and others with which the Church of England is involved, provide the opportunity to set out this vision of what it means to live life in all its fullness. We want pupils to leave school with a rich experience and understanding of Christianity, and we are committed to offering them an encounter with Jesus Christ and with Christian faith and practice in a way which enhances their lives.

Aaagh! It is all so terribly Anglican! This would not envision a frog! I longed to let some church school leaders see the energy that was on display on Friday’s meeting and start to harness the reality of God’s affectionate hope for the weak and marginalised and start kicking ass a bit.

Steve Chalke, writing in the foreword to Joshua Searle’s Theology after Christendom, writes about a phone call he had with a journalist who had been to HTB (I presume), who had described the contrast between the high level of prophetic input he had heard at the service and the need he saw on the streets of London on the way back home. This is the last part of the conversation:

So, the question is this. Why is it that your God can’t stop seem to stop talking in private, yet has lost his voice in public? Why has he gone silent on the streets? Why has he so much to say behind shut doors to his chosen flock, but so little to bring to the complexity of civil society’s conversation about community? When did your God lose his confidence?

Ouch. That is the nub of it. If transformative hope, according to Darren Webb, is a “profound confidence in the capacity of human beings to construct (both imaginatively and materially) new ways of organising life, and a commitment to purposive action through which humans become the agents of their own destiny and wilfully strive to create a new and better world,” what is it that church schools are offering that is better than that? Are church schools and their school and diocesan leaders showing any interest in a pedagogy of hope, and are they making any effort to root it in the hope at the heart of the Christian faith? 

I know that many are. They must be. But I didn’t see any evidence of them or their thinking amongst the brave souls sharing their near-heroic efforts on Friday.

The art of repair: Kader Attia at the Hayward

WP_20190426_18_19_46_ProAn astonishing evening at the Hayward Gallery with one of my daughters followed my day at the BERA SIG conference in Camden on Friday (another blog is on its way about that). We had gone to see the work of Kader Attia, a French-N African artist whose exhibition was called The Museum of Emotion, but which title hardly began to describe the range of emotions brought to life, never mind curated. It is only on another week, till 6 May, and if you like to be challenged in your perception of humanity by artistic endeavour and gain insight into cultures through art, this is a must. The exhibition sits alongside early photographic work by Diane Arbus, but for me, this was a pale second in comparison to Attia’s work, simply because of issues of scale. All of Attia’s work was on a larger imagined field than the photos by Diane Arbus, and the scope of his work was much broader, including sculpture, installation, film, photography, interview and psychological exploration through art.

Picture1I am far from being an art critic, but the theme that stayed with me, beyond that which was perhaps implicit in the title, was that of repair and memory, and allowing the process of repair to heal or enshrine memory. Like the work of Doris Salcedo last year at the White Cube, he wrestles with memorialising those that are otherwise unknown. The first exhibit that really took me by surprise was a short film of the Robespierre Tower in the southern Parisian banlieu of Vitry-sur-Seine. It was projected on a vast screen and simply comprised an ascending view of the whole tower, whether by drone or what I had no idea, but it was absorbing, causing us to wonder at the people who lived there and the lives they lived. The Hayward, part of our own temple of artistic concrete, was the obvious place to show the film. From there, we entered a room full of pictures of the lives of Algerian transgender sex-workers in Paris. This exhibition, entitled the Landing Strip, was intimate and full of compassion for a group of people outcast by the vast majority of Parisians. The photos were tender, funny and very human. Attia spent a couple of years getting to win the confidence of the prostitutes and the ease with which he could be in their lives was obvious in the photos.

Dynamic-37fb6ad8-6f4a-5ac9-aead-3a0b0d0acd5eThe Museum of Emotion was the highlighted centrepiece of the exhibition (not for me, as we shall see) and consisted of assemblages of African masks and religious objects, set alongside stuffed animals in vitrines. There was some lovely work there – the use of molten tin and mirrors to highlight, expand or repair some of the African art was striking. This part of the exhibition was central to Attia’s theme that the need to classify things, so rooted in western enlightenment thinking, rather than accepting objects simply as they are, unclassified, has led to a “collection mentality” that now sees Africans themselves collected in boxes such as the Robespierre Tower. The idea of repair began to emerge more strongly in this particular exhibit which was then expanded in the following room, an exhibition from 2012 entitled The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures. I hope that reads better in French. This photo, taken from the Hayward website (my camera can’t do this stuff in the low light of the exhibit), gives an idea of the size of the display:

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It bore resemblances to the work of Anselm Kiefer’s Valhalla exhibition in the way it was laid out and in the combination of objects with which to interpret what you saw. It continued the museum feel from the vitrines in the previous room, but like Kiefer’s work, was full of documentary references to the fate of soldiers in France who had returned from the first World War – books, leaflets, newspapers and prints from the first part of the 20th century, screwed down into the metal shelving that held the main sculptures in place. Many of these were devotional pieces from injured soldiers themselves.

WP_20190426_17_39_07_ProThe sculptures themselves were astonishing. Earlier in the exhibition there had been photos of the body modifications from some African groups, and they were in many cases very beautiful. Here, Attia wanted to explore the different ways that western and non-western peoples deal with physical injury, deformation and body modification, and our approach to repair. Since the horrors of the first world war, when the kind of weaponry used left a very different range of facial injuries from those of earlier conflicts, we have been experimenting, increasingly successfully, with plastic surgery, the aim in nearly all cases being to restore us to the form we had previously. Attia argues that in many non-Western traditional cultures, “it is the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible.” These perceptions are philosophically and psychologically poles apart.

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In order to demonstrate this, he commissioned traditional Senegalese wood sculptors to make vast wooden busts of French soldiers injured in WW1, from the photos that the French military hospitals made at the time. Then he asked Italian marble sculptors from Carrara to make sculptures of African men and women from groups who used detailed body sculpting and modifications within their traditional cultural practices. Seeing this crossover was quite interesting – the coarser wooden work describing some of the pain of the French soldiers whilst the high accuracy of the marble sculpting highlighted every tiny detail of the body modifications. The whole thing was extraordinary, and was accompanied by a rolling set of photographs from which the sculptors had worked.

But there was more. The final room was a recent exploration of the S Korean Gwangju uprising against the military regime that took power in Seoul following the assassination the previous year of President Park Chung-Hee. The army had clamped down on a student protest against military rule, by firing upon, raping, beating and killing students. This provoked a city wide uprising during which over 600 people were killed by the military. It is still held by many S Koreans to be the start of their transition to democracy. Recently the government has admitted, following a 2017 reinvestigation of the massacre, that US-made attack helicopters had been used to fire on civilians.

Dynamic-877ccfba-9987-5f36-84bb-74e12be455f4 (1)Attia’s exploration took the form of a room full of plasma screens (called Shifting Bordersin which counsellors, victims, relatives of victims and historians all explained, from their differing angles, the impact of that uprising on the modern Korean mindset. Parts of it were heartbreaking, particularly the dispassionate description of the Korean psyche by a lady counsellor sitting in a nice office, whilst a young historian gave a very helpful understanding of the way that Japanese modernist cultural development had overwhelmed Korean modernisation so that Korea itself had a particular problem with coming to terms with modern development.

We had to meet a dinner booking nearby, otherwise both of us would have done the whole thing again! We briefly looked at the Diane Arbus exhibition, but I felt it was an inappropriate pairing with the Kader Attia work, and deserved more space and better guidance through it than was on offer.

Because this exhibition is only on until next Monday, I have no idea whether the links to the Hayward exhibition in the text above will survive! Otherwise, a good catalogue of Attia’s work can be found here.

On architects, farmers and the reason we educate (2)

IMGP3132Following the previous post where I looked briefly at the idea of an architect-headteacher as better than comparable motifs such as accountant, soldier, philosopher or surgeon when a school needs “turning around,” I want briefly to recap those architectural characteristics before exploring how a headteacher might think, lead and function if she thought of herself as a farmer.

Architects had the following main characteristics when seeking to change a school:

  • redesign and transformation rather than quick fixes
  • like to get things done, often coming from a non-educational perspective
  • insightful, humble and visionary
  • engages with community and sees the school as contributing to it
  • thinks long term rather than short term
  • stewards rather than leaders

This last feature – headteachers as stewards – is perhaps the most important and the one that links an urban (architectural) perspective of leadership with an agrarian (farming) one. In it, as I argued in my previous post, is the sense of inheritance or givenness. It therefore has to start with the idea of a giver, an authoritative figure to whom respect is owed in the stewarding of the school. This might be a group of committed governors over many years. It might be the foundation of the school and its trust deed or other founding document. More than likely it might be a community that has had a school in its midst for years and years, and in some cases it might be the church.

Principally, though, from a Christian or an agrarian perspective, it is God or his vicegerent Nature. Stewarding a school is simply a fulfillment of the creation mandate given to all creatures by God, and brought to a degree of fruition and expectation by the ministry of Jesus Christ, in whom, says Paul in Romans 8, creation places its hope as it strains toward the day of freedom. The Godhead, in the Christian, trinitarian view, is the source of our power, our motivation to bless, and of our thinking. If we take the New Testament as in any way normative for our thinking, then we begin to see that in Christ, as Paul says in Colossians, lie all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and through his active Holy Spirit, we begin to find the ability to lead and to inspire those around us to great things.

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So, if a headteacher thinks of herself through the lens of a farmer, what does she consider and expect?

  • She will take what she has before her as a gift, a beloved community, perhaps in need of repair, but already formed with the power to teach, encourage and welcome her into their midst as one given also to them. A good farmer is a gift to his or her land, whilst the “gift of good land” is a present to the farmer. A farmer-head will know that all she does is as nothing compared with the growth that God gives. She is making provision for learning, but it is “God who gives the growth,” as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 3. Her joy will be in seeing children and adults grow, fittingly, together, so that a community of love and affection is formed.
  • She will realise, as all farmers must realise, that the land has its own agenda and own requirement. This is, once again, Pope’s genius of the place and she will see that her school has certain characteristics that are uniquely theirs. This will include aspects of faith, of community, of predilection, of employment patterns among parents, of ethnicity, of neighbourliness – even of climate and temperature.
  • She will see that the school, like the farm, will prosper and is most beautiful when it is most diverse, and that certain actions need to be taken to safeguard and celebrate this diversity, and most importantly, that these requirements will often conflict with her own desire for order and stability. Beauty is a proper measure for farmer-heads, and in welcoming and strengthening hospitality toward diversity, she will find a rich satisfaction.
  • In the midst of diversity, she will gain an understanding that certain things are cyclical – in this the farming year can seem similar to the school year, with high pressure times and times when different tasks need to be attended to with differing degrees of urgency. She will plan for these and take them in her stride. Lambing, SATs, whatever. The year places limits and these limits bring a liturgical sense of worship and acceptance into the community of learners, raising expectations of the excitement and revisiting of different times of the year, and creating stories that become the school community’s very own.
  • Our farmer-head will also know that calamity is a usual part of life and often it has nothing to do with her. Weather, pests, plague, pressures on prices and development pressures from those seeking to build on farmland – all these have their equivalents in school life – variable cohorts, OFSTED inspections, deaths in school, pressure on numbers (either way – we will come to this in a minute) and the roving eye of multi-academy trusts seeking to grow – and a farmer-head, as a good steward, will make the best of these, but also know that they are not the main thing.
  • A farmer knows that scale is vital. Wes Jackson, in talking to the agricultural world, coined the phrase “eyes-to-acres ratio.” This is really an important feature of leadership. Growth is often a very attractive proposition, but unless good, tender, thoughtful leadership care can be provided to that growth, it may be just another field. The Amish have constantly rebelled against the idea of buying out their neighbours’ farms: we can’t love our neighbours if we don’t have any. A leader has a view on what she or he can “see” properly with the requisite amount of care. This often is limited by the space that a school has to gather its entire community together at one time in a hall, for instance.
  • A farmer-head will be absolutely committed to hard work, personal inconvenience, personal responsibility and the reality of risk. She will shepherd the sheep before her, protect and fence in the community from the hazards that threaten them.

None of these features in any way undermine the architectural model, which has a rich beauty of its own, but hopefully add to it by re-establishing the critical importance of stewarding a given gift.

However, there is another area in which farming perhaps can teach us about the kind of educational community we want to live in: the multi-generational life of a traditional farm. I have in mind the work of David Kline, a well-known Amish author, farmer and environmentalist, which typifies the Amish approach. All the people on the farm are needed, and this is the broader family, neighbours, children and the elderly. Any kind of wholesome schools community must also be open to grandparents and great-uncles and great-aunts, to parents and siblings. When we see this kind of school in operation as we did briefly at Christ the Sower when we made particular provision for it. Communal work, with everyone swapping work and sharing lives: this is something that, despite all the legendary deficiencies of English education, we can find time for if we really want it.

What might differentiate these two honourable ways of looking at the task of leading schools may be what they see as the purpose of education. And it is to that that we must turn in the third post in this short series, because it is not as clear-cut and obvious as we might think.

On architects, farmers and the reason we educate (1)

A couple of years ago there was a minor debate in the headteacher world (reflected in the headteacher press – not sure it actually affected many actual headteachers) about the classification of headteachers. Heads, it seems, fell into one of a number of categories, of which one was obviously the best. These were the categories:

  • Philosophers
  • Surgeons
  • Soldiers
  • Accountants
  • Architects

That’s it. According to an article in Headteacher Update from early 2017, each of these “types” had some advantages, but architects were better and more effective in the long run than the others. They based their article on a piece in the Harvard Business Review (Hill, Mellon, Laker & Goddard, 2016) on 411 English academy principals “who had turned around failing schools.” There are so many questions in that one phrase that it is tricky to try and separate out heads who “turn around failing schools” from the run-of-the-mill headteacher who is flat out trying to keep her organisation going more or less in the direction she intended for it. The essential characteristics of the five types were as follows:

  • Philosophers: lead by example as senior teachers, like to talk about pedagogy and do not see themselves as managers – paid on average £103,000.
  • Surgeons: act decisively to turn schools around. They might exclude a large number of children, remove staff and have an immediate and dramatic impact – paid on average £154,000 and most likely to receive awards.
  • Architects: careful planners who begin by working on improving standards of behaviour first and then improving teaching. They value parental engagement, see themselves as working for their community and slowly replace poorly performing staff – paid on average £86,000.
  • Soldiers and accountants: for schools needing a financial turnaround. Soldiers try to cut costs, accountants aim to increase the size of the school – paid on average £100,000

Architects tend to be the ones who cause the greatest long-term impact on children. The HBR article describes them as those who:

…quietly redesign the school and transform the community it serves…..studied History or Economics at university and acquired an understanding of how past leaders created…societies and economies……didn’t set out to be teachers, but decided to initially work in industry as they like to get things done.

….they’re insightful, humble and visionary leaders who believe schools fail because they’re poorly designed, or do not serve….their local community.

…..(they) redesign the school to create the right environment for its teachers and the right school for its community……improve their future opportunities…improve student behavior….increase revenue….and improve teaching and leadership by introducing coaching, mentoring and development programs.

In short, they take a holistic, 360-degree view of the school, its stakeholders, the community it serves, and its role in society.

Performance is slow to improve as architects spend most of their initial time and energy engaging with the local community and building the right environment inside the school. They are visionary, unsung heroes. Stewards, rather than leaders, who are more concerned with the legacy they leave than how things look whilst they’re there.

This is a serious survey and its conclusions are encouraging for those of us who place the community at the heart of our effort (though not so encouraging from the financial point of view, though: architects generally get paid less). There are lots of words here – stewards, visionary, insightful, humble, transforming – that any headteacher worth her salt would want said about her. I certainly would.

I would be equally interested in research in those kind of heads who were brought in and didn’t really change anything, or what they changed didn’t need changing, or was changed to suit their idea of what a school should be. Amongst them will be “soldiers,” “accountants” and “surgeons,” perhaps the latter most of all. Surgery is only used in drastic circumstances and very few schools are drastic enough to warrant that kind of approach. The sort of “behaviour management” described in the Outwood academy chain might conceivably constitute this kind of surgical leadership but to me it is easily confused with bad manners and poor leadership ability. Surgeons are at least fully trained.

However, all of this leads me to enlarge on a brief thought I had earlier in the month when I said I would sooner be a farmer than an architect, as admirable as the HBR description of such architect heads is. My thinking is obviously heavily influenced by the metaphorical impetus provided by leading a school called Christ the Sower for 7 years, but it also comes (and perhaps the one influenced the other) from the work of Wendell Berry and his fellow agrarians who have had a huge impact on my thinking since 2012. In particular it comes from Wendell Berry’s and Wes Jackson’s interpretation of Alexander Pope’s phrase genius loci – the genius of the place.

Alexander-Pope-008Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Observing and respecting this genius loci is a critical aspect of leadership, and is partly reflected in the description above of an “architect head” who takes note of and seeks to serve the local community. However, what a farmer-head might also notice is that what she or he inherits when they are appointed is, in every sense that matters, a gift. It is, 41lRlmGrqGLliterally, a given. And thus, like all gifts, it comes with a history, a meaning of its own, a purpose or intent from the giver, and reflects to a large degree the heart and mind of that giver. Berry is very strong on this and has written a book of poems in 2005 with that exact title, Given. Of all his poetry, it contains to me the most moving and memorable verse (a lovely bluegrass setting of my favourite is here) and all of it is in the context of that which is given – the land; the natural world of the land; neighbours; the relationships that have grown, and grown old, and are suddenly revealed to be a gift; the small joys of remembrance; the sabbath rest that suffuses Berry’s whole life and poetry (his sabbath poetry corpus is large and astonishing); the hospitality that comes with living on the land; the grace that accompanies everything because farming is so hard and so dependent on the weather; the cycle of life and death which reminds us of both humility and mortality – all of these Berry sees as given, rather than designed. A “designed” piece of work makes a tacit assumption that what is “given” is actually just raw material, and that an architect can as well use the raw materials from one place as from another. Different foundations might be needed, but beyond that, what is built could be built in any place. A farmer has little option. Those who treat sandy soils in a forested countryside as though they are previously cultivated clay fields in rolling open countryside are in for a shock. As Also Leopold has argued, it is about asking what nature would do once the forest had taken over again. What would grow here? is the first question of any farmer-head.

So, whilst I will enlarge on this theme later, because there is no doubt in my mind that the architect needs support from the farmer, I will finish this musing with one of Berry’s sabbath poems from Given:

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Fruitfulness and blessing (1)

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Cypriot wine was allegedly the first, or one of the first, to be commercially produced and to make a name for itself in the ancient world. Certain cooperative ventures spent a lot of the 20th century undermining whatever reputation Cyprus had for good wine, but it is, I am assured by travel guides and supermarkets, on the way back. What we drank there was pleasant and drinkable without surprising us. But to see the prominence of grapes (and drinking) in mosaics of all ages was wonderful and a great testimony to the role that viticulture has played in the country. The mosaics above, from top to bottom, are from the Kykkos monastery (20th century), the basilica of the Byzantine cathedral of lower Paphos (around 600 AD) and the House of Dionysus in Paphos Archaeological Park (around 200 AD).

IWP_20190330_11_33_57_Pron orthodox monasteries in particular, the link with grapes is not simply metaphorical or theological. There are a number of them that produce wine as a sideline to earn funds for the work of the monastery. One small monastery we visited at Chrysoroyiatissa had just a single monk in it, and as well as being a skilled icon-painter, with the health risks that that entailed, he farmed (with local help) an extensive vineyard, on carefully terraced fields. It was a beautiful thing to see and learn about, and in some ways it was reflected in a lot of the art we also saw in Cyprus. We only attended one exhibition there, in Paphos itself, but it was dominated by paintings and prints of two things in particular: groups of elderly people (mostly women) in various domestic and social settings, and agricultural practices, from olive and vine tending, to ploughing, shearing and shepherding. Even art that was verging on the abstract retained an agricultural quality and made me remember, as I had also in Germany in autumn last year, how close people feel in many cultures to the land that sustains them. It is something we have lost almost entirely in modern Britain. Art that tries to describe the agricultural landscape and its practices is regarded as somehow twee, instead of being the honouring of the lifeblood of the country. There is a fruitfulness and a consequent blessing that comes from paying attention to where national life really is healthy. I fear that in Britain, we have even stopped asking that question.

Like Malta, there is in Cyprus a sense that tourism, whilst enriching the economy of the country in terms of balance of payments, bringing in foreign currency and “providing jobs” (always the last refuge of those that advocate for “progress”), is also encroaching on a very private world of towns and villages that have strong identities, strong pulls on their populations (witness the number of Nicosians who return to their village homes in the summer) and the potential for a significant agricultural economy. It is clearly in their thinking and their spiritual heritage. Everyone we spoke to wanted us to see the land, its culture and what was growing there. It made me wonder how small countries today can manage to stay rooted in some sort of agrarian communitarianism when the pressures of the market are driving them toward an unrestricted – and often corrupting – development. The geography of Cyprus, and the presence of large areas of upland with small villages, helps maintain an agrarian outlook, but the grasping hand of the Cypriot government and property developers toward Russian and Chinese investment (seen on billboards everywhere in the island) can only undermine that. Neither of those two national cultures will honour the roots of Cypriot life, and like so much in the west, what is truly precious is often sacrificed on the altar of quick and dazzling inward investment. I hope that rather, in 1000 years time, Cypriots are still making mosaics celebrating their agriculture and honouring the deep roots of what made them the people they want most to be.