Back in the 1990s, my then therapist pointed out that I had a tendency to ‘gurify’ certain people, i.e. to see them as far wiser, more spiritually aware and generally better human beings than I was, even when this turned out not to be the case. At that time I’d just started my psychotherapy training and had been to see Mother Meera, an Indian guru or, if you believe it, a divine avatar or incarnation – there are quite a lot of those in India. I paid several visits to Mother Meera in Germany, where she still lives, and not long after that I made a life-changing trip to India. There I visited the ashrams of two living gurus/divine avatars, Ammachi (Mata Amritananda Mayi), who is known for hugging people, and Satya Sai Baba, instantly recognisable by his Afro hair and orange gown, which on Christmas Day he exchanged for a white one – make of that what you will. Sai Baba has since died but Ammachi is still hugging people. I also spent time in two ashrams dedicated to teachers who are no longer alive, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, whose ashram is a shrine to him and his consort, known as The Mother.

These weren’t the first beings described as gurus that I’d come across. Back in the seventies I knew people who were involved in the Divine Light Mission led by Guru Maharaj Ji and later I learnt Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (This is really very little different from any other mantra meditation except that you have to pay a lot to learn it and some practitioners go in for ‘yogic flying’: bouncing about the room in a cross-legged position. The flying is said to have huge benefits for the practitioner and the world, but I have to take their word for that. I was never advanced enough to try it.) In the late seventies and throughout the eighties I was involved in what was then called the ‘growth movement’ and took part in different therapy groups where many of the participants were followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later Osho). For those who remember, they were the ones who called themselves sannyasins and wore orange or dark red. A few still do and many have kept the Sanskrit names they were given, but many have also become disenchanted or drifted away. The leaders of a series of groups I attended were at that time devotees of Baba Muktananda. I once went to their flat in Amsterdam for a course that consisted of chanting, meditation and video presentations by Muktananda himself. People spoke about his extraordinary power to call forth deep devotion and awaken spiritual energies. At that time I didn’t experience much of it, but I could see from his photograph that he was an enormously charismatic and attractive man.

Despite becoming involved with Theravada Buddhism, which unlike Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t see the power of the teacher as central, I still longed to find someone whose presence would enable me to enter new realms of experience. Like many people, I was led to Mother Meera by Andrew Harvey’s book Hidden Journey. I longed to be turned upside-down and inside-out the way he was. Or part of me longed for it. Another part would have been shit-scared if anything so dramatic had happened. It didn’t, but at a time of upset and upheaval in my life I was more than usually open to the atmosphere that surrounded her, and a sense of its peace and beauty definitely reach me. If Harvey and her other devotees were to be believed (he is no longer a devotee), she too seemed to be a divine incarnation and she apparently speaks about herself as such, referring to the rest of us as ‘human beings’. At the time I was prepared to entertain the possibility. I’m less so now; I believe we all have the divine within us and are all ordinary human beings, even though it’s clear that in some people certain energies that I would call spiritual have been awakened to an extraordinary degree.

I certainly felt it in the presence of the teachers/gurus I encountered in India, both the living and those no longer alive, but even at the time I was aware that these energies were not necessarily an indication of goodness or selflessness. At Sai Baba’s ashram, for instance, I was deeply uneasy about the deification he seemed to welcome and the cult that surrounded him – but I can’t say I didn’t experience that extraordinary energy. His ability to ‘manifest’ vibuthi (sacred ash) has been debunked, but I do remember that when he threw a handful of sweets into the crowd, the sweets seemed to hang in the air for a moment in a pattern before they fell to the ground, to be picked up eagerly by anyone they landed near. What that meant I didn’t know, though it too was extraordinary. Ammachi seemed then much more like the genuine article. Her ashram was smaller and more modest (it isn’t now) and she herself exuded benevolence. I felt blessed and uplifted the first time I saw her and received my hug, and continued to do so, though gradually less, on the number of occasions when I saw her in London. She too believed herself to be a divine incarnation and in a particular ceremony would put on the kind of crown worn by Indian gods in statues and paintings. Again I was half-ready to believe it. I certainly experienced the beautiful quality of the energy that surrounded her, and I responded to it deeply.

And yet… A couple of years ago it came to light that a well-known and widely respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher had behaved abusively, which led to his resigning from the organisation he had founded. The abuses concerned power, sexuality and money and seemed to stem from his position as a teacher within the Tibetan tradition, where a student is expected to give her/himself completely to the teacher and accept whatever comes from him as a teaching. He had bullied those close to him when they didn’t meet his demands, had affairs with female students and used funds from the organisation to enrich himself, while continuing to offer teachings on relinquishing greed and attachment. He may or may not have had the same kind of energetic power as the gurus I’ve described – I only saw him once and didn’t sense it – but he was certainly in a position of power. My shock at hearing about this prompted me to find out whether similar abuses by any of the gurus I had seen or heard about had come to light. In a depressing number of cases the answer was yes. Osho had already been discredited, but what I found in relation to so many of these other gurus were accounts of abuses in those same three areas: power, sex and money. Few were exempt, though some came out much less badly than others. Most of the accounts seemed to me genuine: many were from people who had tried hard to reconcile the treatment they had z`received with their devotion to the guru, and had been vilified and ostracised – and worse – when they finally spoke out.  By placing him/herself in a different category from the rest of us – and of course being placed there by students and devotees – the guru or teacher is given licence to act out in ways that are sadistic, exploitative and self-aggrandising, while claiming that it’s all for the good of the student. As we know in other contexts, it’s all too easy to blame the victim and discredit what they say. The guru knows best, so this person must be malicious, disturbed or spiritually unawakened and their perceptions are not to be trusted. And undoubtedly there is transference: a guru is such a powerful figure that s/he is bound to call forth emotional projections of all kinds which may skew someone’s experience. But that’s not an excuse for denying the reality of what has been done.

A common defence, by the guru and her/his acolytes, is that because s/he is an enlightened being, normal standards of behaviour don’t apply. In certain ‘crazy wisdom’ traditions the teacher’s freedom from conventional restraints is believed to be what brings about the student’s awakening. It’s also true that by giving away so much of their power to the guru, people make themselves more open to exploitation – but that’s not an excuse for the exploitative behaviour. What all of this shows is that there aren’t two categories of people, the gurus and the ordinary mortals, and it’s dangerous when we believe there are. In my experience it also shows that, however flawed the guru may be, somehow the spiritual energy can still shine through and enable students to access it for themselves. Or it may not, if the student becomes caught up in the abuse. What’s important is to see the guru as a human being, and to recognise that the spiritual energy resides in all of us. Gurus may have the ability to awaken it in us, and may use that ability skilfully or less so, but it doesn’t belong to them. We can only become enlightened or free or happy for ourselves.


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How Can We Brex It?

I was going to write a post about Brexit but gave up, as my mood kept veering between despair and hysterical laughter. Perhaps the extended deadline has offered us some hope, but given what’s happened up till now there’s no guarantee things won’t still go pear-shaped and politicians who don’t know what they’re doing won’t lead us into some chaotic and half-baked deal which is supposed to be the ‘will of the people’. But there’s a possibility it could get better rather than worse, and the Labour leadership is being pushed harder and harder to endorse a second referendum. If only… The ”Revoke Article 50′ petition is still gathering signatures and now stands at over 6,076,000. Even though it didn’t reach the 17,000,000 or so that people were hoping for, this is a significant number and needs to be taken seriously. But it seems to me that ‘the will of the people’ has become a Humpty Dumpty term which means whatever anyone wants it to mean. If Stephen Kinnock can say that a second referendum would be anti-democratic, then we’re already in Orwellian territory where ‘freedom’ means its opposite. Except that of course it’s more complex than that and our country and its politics have become more deeply divided than they’ve been in many years. The biggest political parties are split into different factions and the smaller ones sadly don’t have the clout to get anything done. The will of some people is most certainly not that of others.

I could go on and end up ranting about it, or else holding my head in my hands and asking, as so many people are, ‘How did we ever come to this?’ There are reasons, of course, but I’m not going to into them now. Instead I’m going to hand over to Adelina, who has volunteered to come to my aid. By her own admission she doesn’t know an awful lot about Brex It, but as always she is  full of goodwill and eager to learn. I take no responsibility for the content of her post.

Hello Everybody

As the Belated Writer has told you, she is letting me write the rest of this Piece of Blogg because she gets so Angry and Upset about Brex It. I said I would be happy to help, as I like to understand things in Simple Terms. I don’t know very much about The Situation but I’m sure that if I try to explain it, that will help you all as well. As I expect you know, it’s all about things like Politics and History and whether we are Coming or Going, which is what nobody seems to know.

A long time ago in 1975 there was something called a Refer-endum and people voted to join the Common Market, as it then was. The Belated Writer tells me she voted against it, but she was quite young back then and things were different. Anyway, the United Kingdom (only it isn’t very United and it’s a Queendom and not a Kingdom) became part of the European Union, which meant all sorts of things like Butter Mountains and Health and Safety and people coming here from Other Countries. Not all of it seemed like a Good Thing but some of it did, and there was a lot of Buying and Selling going on Between the European Countries. Some people in Parliament thought we shouldn’t be in the Union, though, as they thought Britain ought to be Great all on its own, like it was a long time ago when we had a big Empire and made a lot of people in Far-off Countries very unhappy. Most people seemed to think it was a Good Idea on the Whole, though.

Then somebody came along whose name I think was Mr Nigel Farrago. He made a lot of Fuss about Britain coming out of the European Union because there were too many Immigrants (which means people from Other Countries coming to live here). So Mr David Cameron, who was Prime Minister then, said we would have another Refer-endum which he thought would prove people wanted to Stay In. Only it didn’t. Just over Half the people Voted to Come Out and just under Half Voted to Stay In, which meant that Mr Cameron had to stop being Prime Minister and a lady called Mrs Tweezer May took over. She had said she thought we should Stay In, but now it seemed all she could say was that we would have to Brex It (which means Come Out) and she was very Strong and Stable. She kept telling people that Brex It means Brex It. I don’t know why she had to keep saying that, as it couldn’t really mean anything else.

At the same time Mr Jeremy Core-bin, who leads the Labour Party (except that there are some people who don’t want him to) stopped saying he was In Favour of the European Union and didn’t argue with Mrs May and her Friends in the Tory Party (which some people call the Nasty Party, because they take Money away from Poor People and give it to the Rich, which is called Capital-ism). Then it turned out that some of her Friends – who were also her Enemies – like Mr Joris Bohnson, who has a lot of Hair, and Mr Michael Glove, who hasn’t got very much, had lied to Everyone about Money, so that the people who voted to Come Out didn’t really know what they were voting for and some of them wished they hadn’t.

That was all in 2016. Since then Mrs May has been trying to Brex It but she still hasn’t managed it. Some people have been trying to stop her and some people, like Mr Jacob Mees-Rogg, who is Very Rich and has a Nanny, think we should just Leave with No Deal, which means a lot of things in this Country would just Come to a Stop and everybody (apart from him) would be Worse Off. Fortunately Parliament has Voted against No Deal, but nobody seems to like Mrs May’s Deal and the Members of Parliament have done an awful lot of Voting about it all and don’t really seem to have got anywhere, which may be something to do with the Irish Back Stop. I’m not quite sure what that is, but I think it’s about whether people can go from one bit of Ireland to the other, and the Democratic Unionist Party (who don’t seem very democratic to me) trying not to let them.

And then of course there are all the people who want to have another Refer-endum, as they say so many people have Changed their Minds about Brex It on account of Brex It not having meant Brex It in the way they thought it was going to. Or even if we still have Brex It, they think we ought to Vote on how it’s going to happen. Somebody started a Petition on the Inter-net to stop Brex It and over 6 million people have signed it, but Mrs May, and Mr Core-bin too, still say it isn’t the Will of the People. I must say I don’t know which People they’re talking about, as there are an awful lot of People and quite a lot of different Wills. There are some People – though not nearly as many as the Petition People – who think we should just Brex It now and Never Mind What Happens Next. Anyway, the European Union have got so fed up with us that they have given us an Extension till the end of October to Sort It All Out and decide What’s Going to Happen and when and how, which nobody seems to have been able to do up till now. I believe people in Other Countries have been laughing at us because we’ve got in such a Mess, and that’s not a very nice State of Affairs.

I do wish it would all get Sorted Out and Everybody could just go back to living a Quiet Life. Personally I don’t see why we couldn’t have just stayed where we were and not had to Brex It at all, as it doesn’t seem to be doing anybody any good. And I wish all the people who have had their Money taken away could get it back again so that they don’t have to live in dreadful Houses with not enough Food to Eat. I believe wishing things like that is called Social-ism but I don’t mind what sort of Ism it is. Some things are Not Right and nobody should pretend they are Right (except that the Nasty Tory Party call themselves The Right or even the Far Right, which means they want to do even more things that are Not Right.)

I do hope this has helped explain Brex It for you. I’m certainly Clearer about it myself now. It’s been lovely talking to you all.

With love from

Adelina xx







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Adelina’s Re-treat

Hello Everybody

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written on this Blogg and it’s lovely to be talking to you all again. The Belated Writer has asked me to write this as she has been on Re-treat and isn’t ready to write anything herself yet, so I thought I would tell you about my experiences on Re-treat. I don’t know if I’ll say anything about Budd-ism, as it’s a big Subject and there are quite a lot of Ideas in it that I don’t really understand.

My dear Husband and I have been on Re-treat with the Belated Writer quite often before. He is very good at Meditating and doesn’t mind being Quiet all the time but – as you may realise – I am rather more Talkative by nature and don’t like not being able to make Remarks. This time the Belated Writer had a very nice Room and we were very comfortable sitting on a little Shelf beside the bedside, next to a card which the BW’s Friend sent her with a picture of a Lady made of Mud. The Lady seemed to be Fast Asleep but I think the BW’s Friend thought she might be Meditating. She didn’t make any Noise, anyway, but I’m sorry to say the BW did sometimes, what with closing the door and opening and shutting the Bureau which she had instead of a Chest of Draws (I think that’s what it’s called). I’m afraid she may have disturbed the Lady in the next Room, who is a Budd-ist Teacher and possibly Quite Important. As I expect you know by now, the BW can be rather Clumsy sometimes, even though she tried hard to be as Mind-full as possible. I’m not really sure what Mind-fullness is, except that it seems to be about making your mind more Empty.

To be perfectly Honest, I’m not exactly sure what the BW was doing most of the time on her Re-treat. My Husband and I were left alone in the Room while she went Outside, even in the Snow. We were doing Sitting Meditation, of course, but as well as sitting in a little Shelter, wrapped up in a blanket, and Breathing, among other things, the BW was doing Walking Meditation, the kind where you walk so Slowly that if you’re not careful you might Fall Over. And she was doing Tie Chee, which I think is called a Marshal Art but is really more like a Dance, where you pretend to be hitting somebody but do it so Slowly that they would have plenty of Time to run away. She likes doing it very much and does it in the Garden here sometimes while Mr Koala, her Cat, sits and looks very Puzzled.

As I said at the Beginning, I don’t really know very much about Budd-ism or Meditation, but when you start to Meditate you notice what a lot of Thoughts there are in your Mind and how some of them keep coming round again and again. I was worrying about the BW being out in all that Weather – though we had Sun-shine sometimes too – and hoping my dear Husband wasn’t Meditating so much that he wouldn’t want to Talk to me any more. I was also remembering the nice Room we lived in in Golders Green, and before that the BW’s little House (or part of a House) in a place called Crickle-wood, where Mr Smith invented the Potato Crisp. (The BW told me this once – she likes Useless Information.) I came to live with her in Crickle-wood because when she stopped seeing her nice Therapist, the Therapist sent me to look after her. I remembered the Therapist’s House too, and my dear Brother Everard Vark who still lives there. I don’t know if he is still made to work as a Door Stop as I haven’t heard from him for a long time, but sadly that was his Job.

Anyway, that was all about me and not about Meditation. I do know that there are a lot of different kinds of Meditation. Sometimes the BW was doing Loving-kindness Meditation, which means wishing everybody well. I haven’t tried it very much but I do like it, though it seems to make the BW cry sometimes, especially when she is wishing herself well. Sometimes she was just sitting there and Breathing, or noticing things that were going on, like her Feet feeling cold or being Cross with somebody for moving her Things in the Meditation Hall. Sometimes she was watching the Clouds in the Sky and how they never stay the same, which in Budd-ism is called Impermanence, or listening to all the Sounds, such as the Rooks in the Trees and the Wood-pecker, and the Tractors on the Farm and the Chain-saw, and not being more interested in one than another, which seems very Difficult to me. One day there was a Hunt, which was rather Upsetting. We could hear the Horn in our Room, and the Dogs yelping and the Horses’ hooves on the Road. I’m not sure how you Meditate with all that, but I do hope the poor Fox got away.

I don’t think I will say anything about Budd-ism as I’m feeling rather Tired. We’ve been back from the Re-treat for a couple of weeks now and the BW is doing lots of other things apart from Meditating. She thinks it has done her a lot of good, though, and has changed her Inside so that she can get on with her Writing better as well as do everything she has to do. I was glad to be back Home, I must say, especially as my Husband and I had to do without the Doiley we normally sit on and the Shelf was quite hard. Never mind. It was all good Experience, I’m sure, but I’m very glad to be able to Talk again now.

With love from

Adelina xx



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Was I a writer?

I’ve been going through a time of pain: pain so old and stored so deep I can’t even know for sure what it’s about, and the pain of a current situation which is very far from all bad but which, tapping into that deeper and older layer, has become at times almost unbearable. Almost, but not quite. In less than two weeks I’ll be going on a fortnight’s retreat where I’ll have the chance to sit (and walk) with whatever arises and drop beneath the surface of the mind into a place of more spaciousness and acceptance. I can do that to some extent in my ongoing meditation practice, but a concentrated period in a quiet place free from distractions, like the phone and the internet, can enable a wonderful deepening not only into the heart of the pain – and the pain of the heart yearning for connection with all things – but into delight and wonder and a new, or newly remembered, sense of the beauty of the world. As well as which, of course, there are times of boredom or irritation or self-consciousness or  occasionally the desire to get right out of here, right now. In other words, the mind – in fact the bodymind/heartmind – runs the whole gamut from agony to bliss and it’s the meditator’s job to be open to all of it. Which, believe it or not, sooner or later brings calm and joy.

An effect of what I’ve been going through personally has been a loss of confidence in my writing, even though I am working – sporadically – on the rewrite of a novel and a second poetry collection, and have other ideas (and dragons) in the pipeline. At the moment I hardly feel like a writer. All the exhilaration of getting immersed in the world of a novel or writing poem after poem  –  as I did when I was part of the poetry group 52 – seems to have vanished, and in its place is a sinking feeling that I really can’t do it and should give up pretending to myself that I can. Everyone I know who writes seems to be a far better writer than I am, and not only better but more productive. Never mind the fact that poets and novelists whom I respect have said good things about my work and my dear prose writing group are endlessly encouraging; I can easily start to feel that my writing, such as it is or was, has it and I should give it up once and for all. Which of course I don’t. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing on this blog and wouldn’t have sketched out the first draft of a poem in my journal this morning.

When I’m on retreat I usually set aside some time each day for writing. Not too much, otherwise I can get too caught up in thinking, but enough to confide to my journal (a beautiful book with a dragon on the cover, a present from a dear friend) the themes and preoccupations of the day. There’s nothing like being on retreat for seeing how the mind can dig deeper and deeper into the same groove. I tend not to write poems at the time, but in the new collection there is a set of poems about experiences I’ve had on retreat, captured afterwards while they were still fresh. And the writing is important to me: it helps me stay connected to myself and it also, in a mysterious way, helps whatever process is going on to move forward, just as writing on this blog does. When I’ve felt stuck with other writing, I’ve often turned to the blog to get things moving again. And it works. Neither the journal nor the blog may be ‘proper’ writing, i.e. writing that could be published (though I did self-publish a book of blog posts) but the act of doing it seems to open the channel. At various times I’ve done morning pages – three handwritten sides of A4 noting down whatever’s going through my mind – and it has helped, as have other sorts of free writing. But when I’m feeling this way even  that can seem pointless.

The trouble with getting discouraged like this is that it’s such a vicious circle. I think I can’t write, so I don’t, and the more I don’t write, the less I feel able to. And so on, until I reach a point where I think writing doesn’t matter to me and I’m better off just doing the other things I do, like being a therapist. But even when I’m not writing it doesn’t really go away. There’s always a bit of me that knows I’m not writing and still hankers after the feeling I only get when I’m writing: that I’m riding a wave and I’m being who I am – in some sense who I’m meant to be. I don’t quite get that feeling from anything else I do, not even being a therapist, though I love the work and wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.

There’s only one way out of the vicious circle, and that’s to start writing again, no matter what or how I write. My writing may well not be as good as other people’s, but that’s not the point. It’s a part of me, a vital part, and the only way I can feel fully alive is to respect it and engage with it. When I do that, it’s as though a ball of wool that’s been unravelling starts to ravel itself up again and (to mix metaphors) my compass needle is once more pointing in the right direction.

Just recently I looked again at some pieces that I wrote nearly twenty years ago about my struggles with writing, which were one strand of a personal project book – another strand being dragons. They say some things that are pretty similar to what I’ve been saying now, though back then, having had very little encouragement, I doubted myself even more. After the MA and the surge of confidence that followed I didn’t think I’d ever find myself in this place again. But life goes in cycles and I’ve dipped once more into some of the dark and difficult material that I was exploring in that project – which led ultimately to a deeper connection with myself and the writer in me. It’s such a cliché, but sometimes all you can do is trust the process. And somehow, in some way, keep on writing.


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Oh dear

I don’t seem to blog much these days. I’ve always gone in more for the sort of pieces that could be described as ‘reflections’ than the ‘yesterday I went to…’ sort, and perhaps the reflections are running dry. Why not more description? Why not a bit more joy and delight?

Why not, indeed? Except that at the moment I’m not feeling very joyful. I haven’t been well and that always seems to lower the spirits, as do the short dark days; the reality of ageing and death feels more present as my birthday approaches; and my writing has hit a slump that I’ve been bad at getting out of. Perhaps I can’t really do it after all… Last night I had a dream about writing and writers. Two images in it that stood out were a flimsy house with no floor that was hung up on a line and flapping in the wind, and a tiny hut that had a floor of sorts, made of thin chipboard, but no proper door and ramshackle walls. I could apply those images to other situations in my life – and the nature of life itself – as well as to what’s happening in the world.

I was at a dinner party last night where the majority of people were (to me) unrealistically positive about Britain’s recovery after a hard Brexit. Business would soon be up and running again, we’d still be on good terms with the EU and we’d have all sorts of opportunities to develop in our own way, manufacturing our own goods, formulating our own environmental policies, trading with everyone and anyone, and above all being free from the shackles of the European super-state. If only…  Maybe history will turn out to be on their side, but it seems to me so much is against us, from the kind of government we have and are likely to have to the fact that countries aren’t going to be falling over themselves to trade with us when they can get a better deal and easier access elsewhere. Not to mention the fact that, restrictive and cumbersome as it sometimes is, EU legislation has given us standards of some sort – flawed though they may be – for human rights, employment rights, environmental protection and, yes, health and safety, which our present government has been all too willing to do away with and future Tory leaders are keen to dismantle even more. According to Jacob Rees-Mogg it would be a good thing if our industries were run more like those in India, where the level of safety is appalling and employers have had the right to pay their employees as little as they like. And without EU legislation there will be less to stop dodgy American goods and foodstuffs – like the notorious chlorinated chicken – and American-style employment practices, with minimal rights for workers, becoming the norm here. This is even without the ‘special relationship’, which has become a myth since the arrival of the ever-unpredictable Trump.

Those who support Brexit and continue to see it in a positive light will say I’m unduly pessimistic and the benefits of taking back our sovereignty – such as it is – will outweigh the poverty and hardship which everyone admits will follow from a hard Brexit, at least in the short term. And this may well become an excuse for greater ‘austerity’, even though our present level has already been condemned by the UN as causing unacceptable deprivation to people at the bottom end of society. I certainly don’t see membership of the EU as all good: it’s a neoliberal organisation that’s willing to impose harsh sanctions on  members who don’t toe the line financially – look at what’s happened to Greece – but I honestly can’t see how we’ll be better off without it.

In the end only time will tell. We don’t know what’s going to happen and how it will all turn out, and I may not be around long enough see such good as it may bring – assuming we’re not overtaken by global warming and environmental disaster, which this current government isn’t up for doing much about. But I wish I could be as sanguine as those who still have confidence in Brexit.

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Being English

Another friend, Rachael Clyne, has mentioned the experience of second generation immigrants. Here is a poem, entitled Second Generation, about my parents’ ambivalence towards being Jewish. It was published in my collection A House of Empty Rooms (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2017).

Second Generation
When Pishnoff (or was it Puishnoff?)
became Ellis and Schneider Taylor
the shtetls gave way to London streets.

Yiddish would now be muttered only
among the family, behind closed doors.
‘Oy vay’ was disguised as ‘Oh dear me’.

Longing only to be truly English
my parents disowned their parents’ accents,
their ignorance of life as the goyim lived it.

Yet all that was Jewish in them refused to die:
the Friday night candles, the gabbled prayers
they’d never understood, much less believed in.

In their quiet suburb they were transformed,
Harrele now Harold and Clarushka Clare,
but inside them they still carried the haim.

shtetls – small Jewish towns in eastern Europe
haim – the ‘home country’ their parents came from


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Blog to blog to blog: the identity thing

I was surprised and rather flattered that my friend Hazel, in her blog Dancing with Red Fudo, chose to quote from my previous post as a starting point for her own reflections. Although my post wasn’t really about identity – in the sense of identifying with a particular groups or groups – I did mention a few of my identities as I imagined how I might be seen by a possible relative whose identities are a very far cry from mine. It’s easy to become attached to the labels we apply to ourselves. Hazel questions how far the labels I’ve chosen might apply to her and whether her identity – in the sense of individuality rather than identification – can be fitted into such neat boxes. Which then made me question how far I can really put my hand on my heart and say, “Yes, I am this” to any of them.

Let’s do the Jewish one first. Although my mother was Jewish as well as my father, and so by birth I am a real one, I’m not a practising Jew and in fact practise another religion – to the extent that Buddhism can be called a religion. But if anyone asks me whether I’m Jewish I will always say yes, because in some very basic familial, tribal sense that is still where I feel I belong. So many of my childhood memories are bound up with Jewishness, in the family’s culture and in the sense, which I intuited quite early on, of being part of a minority that was both special and somehow excluded from the mainstream. And yet I’m not part of the Jewish community, in that I don’t go to synagogue or keep the customs or celebrate the Jewish holidays, though they’re still there somewhere in the back of my mind.

By the time I started to become aware of my sexuality I’d already had plenty of practice at being in a minority, especially as my father was a convinced Marxist and that was outside the norm too. I’ve always been more equivocal about this identity, though, and less ready to attach to it, partly because in my experience there’s been more stigma involved – there certainly was at school, and many of the work and social situations I’ve found myself in have been, as people would now say, heteronormative. And my relationship to this identity is less clear-cut. Although I now identify as gay, a recent meeting with someone has reminded me that I do feel attracted to men and calling myself bisexual wasn’t entirely a whitewash – though it was that to some extent.

I can’t say I have no sense of identification with the LGBTQ community, but I think it comes second to the identification with being Jewish. It’s interesting, though, how many of the same traits of ‘minority consciousness’ apply. I’m nearly always aware, through their name or looks or accent or turns of phrase, when someone might be Jewish, and I once described this awareness to someone as ‘the Jewish equivalent of gaydar’. In a similar way I usually pick up when someone might be gay, although I’d say it’s easier to get this one wrong. By doing so in both cases I’m looking out for people who are ‘us’, insiders in a world of outsiders, people who share assumptions and experiences and knowledge that the majority don’t share.

Hazel talks in her blog about feeling both English and German. I don’t have the same sense of dual nationality. Unlike her father, who was German-Jewish and came here as a refugee, so far as I know my grandparents arrived in the early 1900s as economic migrants. My maternal grandfather would have come to London from Odessa not very long after the 1905 pogrom, but if he suffered in it the family had no stories about it. My parents were both born here and would be described as English, but like many Jewish people they continued to refer to non-Jews as ‘English’ people – except if they were ‘coloured’, of course. While being ostensibly English, I grew up with an odd sense that I wasn’t the same as all the English people around us. My parents spoke Yiddish at home sometimes and my mother remembered her parents speaking Russian – both languages used when the grown-ups didn’t want the children to understand. I knew that most English families didn’t do that.

I won’t go into such detail with the other labels I mention, ‘left-wing’ and ‘Buddhist practitioner.’ In fact I’ll leave the Buddhist bit for another time, as there’s a lot to be said about it and I’ve said quite a lot in previous posts. But again there’s the same mixture of belonging and not quite belonging.

Given my family’s political background, perhaps it’s not surprising that on some level socialism feels ingrained in me. I’ve never voted Conservative and don’t intend to, but how far left my politics have been has fluctuated over the years. From briefly adopting my father’s communism in my early teens, I became apolitical for a while and did swing farther to the right. During the 1980s, although I worked in Camden, a stronghold of Militant Tendency, I was always slightly uneasy about its dogmatism and intolerance. But though I tried to be mainstream, I could never rid myself of the feeling that Tony Benn talked a lot of sense. I voted Labour in the 1997 election but was more than slightly uneasy about Tony Blair, and I became steadily more so as his government went on. Like many people, I felt a surge of hope when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader. At last here was someone who represented the kind of politics I believed in. But sadly I can’t share the Labour Party’s inaction and passive support in the face of Brexit. So, in common with a lot of people I know, I espouse the politics of the Left without having a tribe or community that I can wholly identify with.

And perhaps that is how it is for most people. I don’t identify wholly and unequivocally with any particular community (interesting how ‘identity’ in this sense is a question of community, not singularity). And yet the identities I have do to an extent define who I am in the world and how I see myself. They don’t sum me up, though, and I try not to use them to sum up other people. Identity in the individual sense can’t be pinned down and, thank goodness, is ultimately fluid. It’s also far more than the labels we attach to ourselves.


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