Saturday, 14 November 2009

Flotsam Faces

A couple of years ago, we were spending a day with friends who had access to a waterfront villa at Calla Rata on the opposite side of Mahon harbour in Menorca. Whilst the others were fishing, I idled away the time arranging bits of flotsam and jetsam to create a caricature. I continued and over the course of the next hour or so I had created three of them.

My friends were so taken by the result that they urged me to take one of them home and permanently fix the bits together. On my return to Wells at the end of our holiday, I spent an afternoon collecting rubbish off the beaches at Burnham on Sea to make some more caricatures. These 'Flotsam Faces' are now displayed on the walls of our cottage. I enjoy creating something amusing out of rubbish and I hope you like them too.

Pratītya Samutpāda

The concept of Pratitya Samutpada or dependent origination is common to all schools of Buddhism and is a fundamental cornerstone of the Buddha’s teaching. In short, it states that all phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. A Wikipedia entry describes it as follows:

“A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being. This sounds as though it is unbelievably complex and indeed it is”.

The Buddha described it more pragmatically:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

They say that the best way to eat an elephant is a little bit at a time, so maybe we could start by nibbling at one tiny corner of this massive cardinal doctrine. The Buddha urged us to test his teachings in the light of our own experience and I have always taken this advice to heart. If I can see the truth of a concept represented in my own life and in the world around me, I find it much easier to understand. So here’s an example of something that seemed relatively insignificant at the time but because of dependant origination, it changed my past, my present and my future.

I joined the RAF in my late teens. I loved the life but was not too keen on my job as an RAF Policeman. I was due to be released at the end of my enlistment period but felt inclined to stay on if I could change my trade to something more interesting. The RAF had just introduced a new flying trade of Air Quarter Master. I met the criteria so I applied. I was then advised that all applicants must have a minimum of 9 years unexpired service. As I was at the point of being released, I would have to sign up for the full term. However, if I failed the selection process or did not complete the training, I would have to serve out the 9 years as a policeman. I quickly withdrew my application and was released a few weeks later.

I decided against returning to my home town of Ealing and settled in Bristol. Here I met new friends including Bob, a jazz musician and sandwich bar owner,

Meanwhile, unbeknown to me, another story was unfolding. Two teenage girls, Jan and Mandy, had become close friends at school in Bristol. They were now both working and decided to take a holiday together. It would be their first time abroad and they eagerly poured over the holiday brochures. They chose a reasonably priced 10 day holiday in Menorca in the Spanish Balearic Islands.

The adventure was everything they hoped it would be and Mandy had the bonus of a holiday romance with Jose, a handsome Spanish waiter. Unlike most holiday romances this one endured. Mandy and Jose continued to write to each other. Eventually Jose saved enough to fly to Bristol to find Mandy and seek employment. They married and returned to Menorca together where they started a family. Jan would fly out to visit them as often as she could. Eventually Jan also married but her husband wasn’t keen on foreign holidays, but she still kept in contact with Mandy and Jose as best she could.

Tragedy struck and Jan’s husband was killed in a motoring accident. Some years later she bumped into my friend Bob in a jazz club. They fell in love, married and had a honeymoon in Menorca with Mandy and Jose. Bob loved the island and couldn’t wait to move out and start a business there. Naturally I was keen to visit Bob and took my new partner Chrissie with me. She too was enchanted by the island and we agreed to sell up and emigrate there.

Chrissie’s son Will came with us, went to a local Spanish school and on to Art College. Years later, when Chrissie and I moved away from the island, he decided to stay behind. Today he works in one of the island’s big tourist attractions, Los Covas den Xoroi, a night club situated in caves set high in the side of a massive cliff face. His partner is pregnant and in a few months Chrissie and I will have a grandchild who will be part Spanish. I doubt that they will every wish to live in the UK so we will have a family line stretching far into the future and linked to this small Mediterranean island.

Had the RAF not imposed the 9 year rule, I would have stayed on as an Air Quarter Master, living an entirely different life flying around the world taking supplies to air bases. I would never have met Bob or known anything about Jan, Mandy or Jose. I would not have met my wife Chrissie or lived in Menorca. I would not have had a stepson called Will or a Spanish grandchild. My past, present and future turned on a simple decision to return to civilian life.

Through our own experience we are able to understand and appreciate the amazingly complex web of cause and effect that connects us all. Today it is considered to be new science and ‘the butterfly effect’ is often used as a metaphor. 2,500 years ago in Northern India a fully enlightened Buddha understood it all perfectly. He called it Pratītya Samutpāda.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Sliding Doors

In the film Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow portrays two versions of a young New Yorker’s life. They are separated by the closing of the doors of a tube train. In one version she catches the train and her life is taken in a particular direction. In the other version the doors shut before she can board and her life is totally different.

It is the fact that our lives can turn on such seemingly insignificant events that excites me so much. No matter how we plan or structure our lives, they can suddenly alter in the blinking of an eye, for the better or for the worse. We may turn a corner and meet the person we are going to spend the rest of our lives with or fall down an unattended beer cellar and carry the scars forever. When we open our eyes each morning, we have no idea if the dawn is going to bring an encounter that will significantly alter the direction of our lives or if it is going to be just like any other day.

Some years ago I was a security surveyor working in London. One day, I was working in London’s West End when I received a pager message asking me to visit Group Sales Box Office, a company located down a side street off Haymarket: I was to ask for the Director, Gillian Guy.

I caught the lift to the second floor which opened into an incredibly busy office. Phones rang, telex machines chattered. People were ran back and forth carrying files and waving pieces of paper. I was led to the far corner where Gillian sat behind a desk shielded from the chaos by shoulder-high screens. She was on a transatlantic telephone call. No sooner had she put the receiver down than it rang again. I sat patiently until she finished and pressed the Do Not Disturb button.

She was an imposing figure. In her late 50’s, confident and authorative. Her accent was middle class and slightly theatrical. I needed to engage in a little small talk so that I could be sure of her attention, so I commented on the high stress environment and suggested it must be a very difficult to wind down at the end of the day.

She became quite animated. “Oh you wouldn’t believe it darling. It is so difficult. I’ve tried everything, alcohol, yoga, exercise. I am even thinking of trying meditation”.

At that time I was supporting the beginners’ drop-in class at the London Buddhist Centre, so I mentioned this. Gillian’s eyes lit up and she asked me when and where the classes took place. I explained that they were at a Buddhist centre in Bethnal Green and expected this would put her off. Not so. Gillian grabbed a Post-it note and scribbled down the details. I suggested that if she ever wished to come along, she should try the vegetarian restaurant next door as I usually ate there at 7.00 before the class started at 7.30 and would be pleased to introduce her. With that we moved on to discuss the security of the offices and when I left the building an hour later, I did not expect to see Gillian Guy again.

Several weeks later, I wandered into the Cherry Tree Vegetarian Café one evening for a bowl of soup and home made bread before entering the adjacent London Buddhist Centre for the beginner’s meditation class. Someone waved vigorously in my direction and it took a moment to recognise Gillian Guy, sitting in a corner wearing a genuine fur coat, oblivious to the fact that the vegetarian diners were looking daggers at her. We renewed our acquaintance and spent the evening at the class. Gillian took to meditation like a duck to water and we continued to meet regularly as she became a frequent visitor to the Centre.

Group Sales Box Office specialised in booking large blocks of theatre seats for visiting parties of tourists. In fact her company sold more West End theatre tickets than any other agency in London. Consequently, much of her spare time was taken up attending opening nights of plays and shows so she could assess their suitability for her groups.

She told me that her husband had been a senior manager with the Daily Telegraph but had died nearly two years previously. To compensate for the void left by his death she filled her spare time with the theatre and voluntary work as a part time magistrate. However, she didn’t like to go to the theatre unaccompanied and would invite friends and even ‘borrowed’ their husbands for a few hours to act as escorts. She asked if I liked the theatre and I replied that I liked it very much, although I didn’t go too often. Gillian asked if I would be prepared to escort her one evening and I said that it would be a great pleasure.

A few days later my pager instructed me to ring Gillian Guy.
“Are you free this evening” she enquired. I was.
“I don’t suppose you have a dinner jacket with you?” I assured her that it was not an essential part of a security surveyor’s equipment but I was wearing a dark blue suit.
“Could you buy a dickie-bow somewhere and then meet me at the Haymarket Theatre at 7.15? It’s the first night of a new musical”.

I was not too keen on musicals but it was a free night out and soon sported a criminally over-priced black bow tie. I hurried to the Haymarket. I turned the corner to see a heaving mass of people thronging around the Haymarket Theatre. There were flood lights, TV cameras and autograph hunters waving books. A fleet of sleek limousines queued at the curb-side waiting to discharge celebrity passengers. Policemen linked arms to hold back the crowds. And there, standing calmly on the other side of the police cordon, wearing her genuine fur coat, was Gillian Guy. She waved; instructed the police to let me through and quickly whisked me inside. She took a seat in the stalls bar whilst I elbowed aside Melvyn Bragg to order a couple of gin and tonics for the intermission. Gillian explained that this was the first night of Phantom of the Opera, a new musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice starring Michael Crawford who was a major star following his television success as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

It was a glittering occasion and we were surrounded by well known faces. Gillian pushed through the crowds to speak to Stephen Fry. They obviously new each other well and she explained that they had once been neighbours when she lived on Clapham Common. We took our seats and the lights dimmed.

Back at the bar during the interval, Gillian asked me what I thought of it. Anxious not to reveal that musicals were not my thing, I praised the amazing sets. I was blithely unaware that I was witnessing the birth of a worldwide theatrical phenomenon; the most successful West End musical of all time.

When the curtain calls finally ended, we fought out way out into the fresh air once more.
“Come along darling, I’ve got a ticket to the Lloyd-Webber’s party at Limelight”. Gillian showed me the single gold edged invitation.
“I will walk you there and then I’ll go home” I said. I have had a truly incredible evening”
Gillian was having none of it. “Just stick close to me and we’ll be fine”

As we approached Limelight we could see a menacing team of bouncers guarding the door. I feared the worst but at that moment a number of taxis pulled up disgorging a crowd of dinner-jacketed men with their cocktail-dressed partners. We were surrounded on all sides. Cameras flashed, invitations were waved in the air. Somehow in the melee we were suddenly found ourselves inside and being offered chilled champagne by tall transvestites in fishnet stockings.

When we emerged at 2.00 in the morning, an argument was taking place on the pavement. Singer George Michael was being denied entry by bouncers because he had not got an invitation.

A throw-away remark about the need to unwind after a stressful had taken me to another world; one I would otherwise have only dreamed about. For the next three years I was to escort Gillian to every first night in both London and the provinces; attend every award ceremony and be invited to all the major theatrical parties.

Far more importantly, I forged a very special friendship that endures to this very day.