Went walking in the mountains above Alicante with Simon over Easter. Acres of almond blossom. Good sinew-hardening walking. Climbing the Sierra de Bérnia and getting stuck on a 20m rockwall, giggling. Learning the meaning of the word egregious and hortatory. Rainbows and full-moon shadows. And Good Friday procession in the mountain village of Castels de Castel that completely overwhelmed me.
We arrived knackered from a full day’s hiking at around 7 and went to one of those working-man’s bars in Spain that serve scrotum-tightening tapas. Then we found out the procession was starting at 10. Outside the church families were arriving, grans and grandchildren, chatting happily. Then on the dot of 10.30, a solemn drum-tap and three effigies lurch out of the church doors into the town square, carried on the shoulders of 10 or so men marching in step which gives the images the strange loping movement of a galleon. A large Mary, a crucified Christ and a Christ laid out for burial. All the men of the village march in line down one side of the street, the women on the other, all holding long candles. Suddenly it’s silent apart from the drum tap and then, the band – 30 or so amateur brass and woodwindplayers – who up until now have looked like they could barely scratch together a “Cucharacha”, break into a stunningly beautiful and textured lament. Starting with the low brass, it rolls onwards into an really, really beautiful orchestra piece as the entire population solemnly march in step around their village. A full moon above the candlelit streets.
Clearly it’s an annual event. Something to be enjoyed. But it’s a wonderfully solemn, dramatic and beautiful thing. I find myself smiling and crying all at once as I fall into step behind the band.
And as we walk on and the music is repeated and I enjoy the girl flautists at the back chatting and comparing haircuts, laughing discretely until their cue comes. I enjoy the elderly clarinettist shushing them. I enjoy the staginess of it. The way that once we’ve found our way back to the church and it’s over, everyone’s chatting, laughing, normal again. But normal together.
Rituals are not about perfection, they’re about togetherness. I sussed that on Holy Island on my first Buddhist retreat. Back then I was dreadfully earnest and hunourless about spiritual things and expected the Buddhist ceremonies to be perfect incarnations of some airy Dharma ideal. While I was sitting disapprovingly through one particularly long and messy Guru Rinpoche puja – with monks dropping books, enquiring loudly during chanting which page they should be on and messing up their conch blowing – suddenly all my irritation fell away and I had a moment of blistering clarity, what Zen calls satori. All that mess gelled into simple perfection. Ritual is not like playing a piece of classical music where everything is sublimated to create a perfect interpretation of what’s on the page. Ritual is about people together doing stuff, pointing the same way. The giggles, the mess-ups, the pompous people, the bored. They’re all part of it.
Walking behind that whole village together was a beautiful priveledge, regardless of what the march symbolised. Walking together with Simon through the lemon, orange and nispera groves up towards the high peaks was just a pleasure. I enjoyed being together with someone so much that when Simon headed off to visit a friend of his in Valencia, and I had the afternoon to myself there, I felt quite winded and melancholic.
I lay in the sunny park and took a weird picture.
Been away filming a new BBC show in Turkey for 2 weeks. I like these long shoots abroad. I feel like I’m floating through a disassociated landscape. No mobile, no email, no TV. The irritants of London fade away and I start to feel very focused. There’s something about being with a knot of people, bonded by hours in a crew bus, that is pleasant. Because there’s so little to do, no excess of choice, you end up doing the simplest things and enjoying them. There are only these people, this hotel, this meal – so you do that. It becomes like the simplified space I’m familiar with from retreats.
It was suprisingly cold in Turkey. Early on in the first block in Bolu, in Northern Turkey, I had a morning free before I was needed for filming. The landscape outside my hotel window had been annihilated by snow. I had nothing to do for 3 or so hours. So I sat meditation. In that thin-air of stimulation, every thing became very sharp.
It’s something about the quality of attention. WH Auden says that curiosity is the one human passion that can be indulged without satiety. And he’s right, there’s always something to be noticed and then noticed more deeply. It’s a self-replenishing source of energy. If we move through the world touching things with delicate attention they come alive under our fingertips. In the snowlit corridors of mountain hotels and long journies across the white plains of Turkey, people and things seemed to sparkle and thrum.
But it also struck me that it’s not enough to be attentive. You need to pay attention to the kind of attention you’re paying. Otherwise, the quality of our noticing shapes what we notice.
That’s apparent in this photography thing. Over the years I’ve been taking pictures with my camera, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to take the same sort of pictures. Framed things in a certain “aesthetic” way. Picked certain objects to photograph and ignored others. I was talking to Laurie and Rob, the camera and soundmen on this shoot, about how boring this was getting.
There’s a great story about Jean-Luc Godard. His Director of Photography would get on set before shooting, spend hours setting up lights and camera angles to create a perfect, beautiful shot. Then Godard would step up to the camera, look through the viewfinder, and before calling ‘Action’ he would kick the tripod and shoot the whole scene on a random skew. Of course, in the film it looked weird but wonderfully correct. Similarly, Lars von Trier says that the best thing an actor can do for him is to fuck up. Sometimes the crap, the ugly and the random generate new beauty.
So towards the end of the Turkey trip we started to deliberately mess-up shots. Holding the camera up in the air, vaguely pointed at people to get an fresh frame. Photographing random things.
My patron anti-saint, Oscar Wilde, said that art is a raid on the predictable. And the skew-whiff art that I think is the best art makes life less boring. It stretches the perceiving eye to perceive more. It’s like when I watched Godard’s Alphaville on the way up to Haworth and suddenly Yorkshire train stations seemed like 1950s nouvelle vague. Knocking the tripod can surprise us with stuff we didn’t expect to notice.
Trungpa (0f course) already nailed this: “Normally , we limit the meaning of perceptions. Food reminds us of eating; dirt reminds us to clean the house; snow reminds us that we have to clean off the car to get to work; a face reminds us of our love or hate. In other words, we fit what we see into a comfortable or familiar scheme. We shut any vastness or possibilities of deeper perception out of our hearts by fixating on our own interpretation of phenomena.” Some bonkers film or off-centre photo from way outside our normal parameters can be exactly what we need to shake off our own lazy interpretations of the world. Or at least give us a whiff of vaster ones.