An occasional diary of what I’ve been up to/reading/thinking about – from Bloomsbury to Tibet via South London, naturally!
The Easter season takes a heavy toll on the church organist, but I’m glad to report that I made it out the other side with all faculties intact, and may even have enjoyed it a bit. The unseasonably warm weather also made for a very pleasant bank holiday Monday trip to Knole house in Sevenoaks, Kent with my parents. I hadn’t been back to Knole since my first visit in 2016, when several of its rooms were undergoing refurbishment. The main showrooms are now available in all their glory, but I was particularly delighted to find that that Edward Sackville-West’s rooms in the gatehouse are now open to the public, with a specially curated exhibition about his life and works. Last year I happened to come across a biography of Eddy by Michael De-la-Noy at the bookshop where I work, having been intrigued by him ever since I discovered a few of his bookplates knocking around the shop (see below). A cousin of the much better known Vita Sackville-West, Bloomsbury-ite and lover of Virginia Woolf, Eddy was a highly regarded music critic and novelist, writing, along with Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Record Guide (1951), a comprehensive guide to all classical music recorded at that point. When he lived at Knole he was part of the constellation of ‘bright young things’ of the 1920s, decorating his rooms in the gatehouse in a curious combination of 1890s decadence and 20s modernism, albeit with a Bloomsbury slant, incorporating a beautiful fire screen by Duncan Grant. Here he welcomed such luminaries as Ethyl Smyth and E.M. Forster, and embarked on a string of doomed love affairs whilst writing some fairly well-received novels, unfortunately all out of print today. Knowing nothing about the gatehouse rooms in advance, it was an unexpected joy to find so much Eddy ephemera in one place.
A side effect of spending much of my time on social media and blogs is that I often forget exactly where I first heard about something. So it is with Donald Lopez’ Prisoners of Shangri-La – my Amazon history tells me that I ordered the book on 2 June 2014, but I can’t remember where it was recommended and I didn’t make any note of it at the time. Prompted by Lopez’ recent guest appearance on the Imperfect Buddha podcast, and the prospect of an Easter Sunday afternoon on a sun lounger, I started re-reading to see what it would offer a second time around.
The book’s essential premise is that Tibetan Buddhism is a magnet (and I don’t use the metaphor lightly) for various kinds of mystification and mythologising, by Tibetologists, Tibetophiles, and Tibetans alike. This sort of argument will be familiar to those who have read Edward Said’s Orientalism, but Lopez doesn’t engage in the sort of binarising discourse that so often follows in Said’s wake, instead giving a nuanced history of the interactions between Tibet, its neighbours and the wider world, particularly as they pertain to Buddhism. The writing is academic without being overly formal, and Lopez tends to wear his theory lightly, covering Tibetan Buddhism’s misreading as a degenerate kind of ‘Lamaism’; the links made between its priestly hierarchy and Roman Catholicism; the various uses and misuses of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ (mostly a twentieth century invention); the mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’; and the curious popularity of Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye, a book written by an English man who had never visited Tibet, but claimed that he had at some point taken on the consciousness of a very well-travelled Lama. Beyond being a fascinating and sometimes amusing read, Lopez’ approach in prisoners is to pick apart our received notions about Tibetan Buddhism. In doing so he discovers that the hall of mirrors is unending – Tibetan Buddhism has come loose from its homeland in the mind of the rest of the world, a process which has only accelerated since the exile of its political hierarchy after 1959. The religion has stepped into a role it originally served to medieval China, as priest to patron, but this time to the whole world, becoming a symbol of universal love and compassion, especially in the form of the Dalai Lama, while hopes of genuine political change begin to fade. Along with David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, and David Chapman’s various blog series over at Vividness, Prisoners of Shangri-La was pivotal in changing the way I understood what modern Buddhism was, so I was glad to go back for a second time and rediscover its wealth of insights.
My other read for the week was an offshoot of the Deserter blog, Today South London,Tomorrow South London, written by Andrew Grumbridge and Vincent Raison, or their alter egos Raider and Dirty South. Essentially a cobbled together series of pub crawl blogposts, the book is nevertheless a fun read and occasionally approaches the sublime, with a surprisingly moving ending. The name is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, as the book definitely skews more South-East, but if you’re looking for an actually readable pub guide and your postcode is SE, the authors have certainly shared a well-researched wealth of knowledge here!
I’ve started tracking my reading on GoodReads, and set myself a goal of 100 books read for 2019, which should be visible here. I’ve yet to add a few from earlier in the year, so hopefully the goal isn’t as wildly ambitious as it looks at the moment.
Recent listening: an absurdist leftist take on Brexit from trashfuture podcast, the Donald Lopez episode mentioned above, and the soundtrack to most of my tube journeys in the form of this brilliant darkside hardcore mix by Pearsall.