Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Coming home

Somewhere above the vast Sakha Republic in Siberia, on my flight home from Tokyo - circular and ox-bow lakes and a sinuous river winding northward through tundra; no sign I could discern of human presence. Like the Great Sandy Desert in emptiness and age. I wonder who has marked this place in art and we are - I am - changing it now. The distance I've travelled in three weeks - London, Singapore - for 30 minutes - Sydney, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Bendigo, Tokyo and back to London and Birmingham!

A letter to JapanDear Eriko, Cigiri and Takuya. I have been strolling in our garden at home after a good night's rest. I arrived at Heathrow yesterday evening and took a coach back to Birmingham where I was met in town by Linda and Oscar. So I got kissed and licked!
I feel full of energy and overflowing with experiences, still to be woven into my imagination. Dreaming helps sort so many impressions.
In my very short visit to Tokyo my tour of the National Art Centre with you three was the second course of a wonderful meal, the first being my reception by Shigeru and Yoko Naiki in the morning and going with them on the Ginza line to the market and shrine at the Asakusa Nakamise market and temple that same morning.
I had been partly prepared in Australia for our English-Japanese conversation about 'Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye' at your National Art Centre by other conversations I had in Australia, with my hosts - John and Annie - who'd given me a start with the suggestion I view the film 'Rabbit Proof Fence'. Later I visited the Ian Potter Centre - the art gallery of the State of Victoria in Melbourne, where I was shown around their collection of Aboriginal art by a volunteer guide called Angie, and began to learn a little more about the art of Australia's indigenous people - 'first Australians' (so far only glimpsed through the film Walkabout and and Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee, with David Gulpilil in important roles, especially the former). Into my impressions of this first encounter in Australia there flowed my experience of seeing a speech on 29 May (these dates are important to me - like marks on a tree trunk) - at the home in Bendigo of my Australian hosts - John and Annie Martin. It had been delivered by Mr Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia on 13 February 2008 (ignore advertisement at start).
I viewed part of this on Annie's laptop on their dining table via YouTube! It's a good speech, full of a sober sincerity that politicians strive for but rarely achieve - with the feel of spontaneity that has been long and carefully crafted. This is what makes such an address so powerful and convincing, despite the reservations, cynical rebuttals, and scepticism that can be read on the internet and no doubt overheard in conversations between quite a lot of Australians. Seeing that public apology in the assembled Parliament of Australia was moving for me as a foreign observer.
It also engendered regret and even guilt. We too have our history. I am a typical liberal first worlder enjoying the riches of our culture and economy, most especially education since I was born - at home, from family, and at some of the best schools and universities in our country and America. It would be odd, therefore, if I did not have such feelings, though some influential commentators in Australia have referred to harbouring guilt, about the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, as a 'black armband' approach to history. This is based, in part, on the belief that compassion and remorse alone are not enduringly sufficient to right past wrongs or make good futures, and that sincere apologies cannot be made across many generations.
For me the difficulty is that such feelings derive from the view that someone is a victim. Many who might, with good reason, be placed in that category, might not appreciate my compassion, not wishing to be defined as victims. They gain nothing from my remorse.

The same unequal perception of a relationship can exclude the possibility of respect, shared learning and pride of association with people and cultures one has seen only as victims. This is why my visit in your company to that exhibition at the National Art Centre was so good.

Near the end of his speech on 13 February Kevin Rudd - in a robust blend of vision and practicality, (video) said:
"It is for the nation to bring the first two centuries of our settled history to a close, as we begin a new chapter. We embrace with pride, admiration and awe these great and ancient cultures we are truly blessed to have among us; cultures that provide a unique, uninterrupted human thread linking our Australian continent to the most ancient prehistory of our planet."
Visiting those paintings in Tokyo, talking quietly together and separately, noting your views - spoken and unspoken - and forming my own impressions as we gazed at picture after picture, displayed so beautifully on the bare walls of your National Art Centre, any condescension I might have harboured towards first Australians was transformed into "pride admiration and awe" in the presence of an artist who - as is always the case with genius - speaks to the world. I realise these paintings are not, as we would first see them, abstracts. They illustrate a different way of looking at the world; separate understanding and perceptions refined over thousands of years. that we can only see in part having so much yet to understand about each other.

I valued and learned from your views as Japanese people, as women - in the case of Cirigi and Eriko - as young people compared to me, but most of all as three friends - regardless of those other things that define, and sometimes imprison and even separate us.

I've travelled further in the last three weeks than ever before - never having crossed the Equator until now, nor see the Southern Cross in the sky. I did not really believe that I would ever visit Japan. Such an adventure!
I did not know, as I flew 40,0000 feet above Alice Springs in the centre of the Great Sandy Desert of Australia on May 23, that far below lay Utopia the home of an artist called Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose work I would be studying with you in Tokyo three weeks later on my way home to England - work brought to Japan, I now learn, through the initiative of Akira Tatehata, who first saw Kngwarreye's work in 1998, while he was curator at the National Museum of Art in Osaka.

On Sunday, as you know I had that delightful reunion with ex-students and staff from CLAIR (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) above the city in the Restaurant Monnarisa on the 36th floor of the Marunouchi Building , then we strolled around a park near Tokyo Bay where I found one piece of litter at last (:)), then on Monday I went to CLAIR HQ and had another fine meal and meeting and discussed the next course in October with the Director, then to Mr. Naiki's office and then, in the evening, to your equivalent of Whitehall.
As you know I was very nervous about my talk that evening at the Ministry, but unless people were being very very polite indeed, it went excellently. I had so many complimentary conversations after I'd finished - over beer and snacks. I'm not always modest you see (:)) Thank you for the help you gave me in preparing this talk - for your ideas and encouragement. Although I didn't mention it in my introduction or title I did manage to make an aside about England as her own 'last colony' and I think some people understood my point about the impression you can get if you stand in the centre of Whitehall - the architecture of empire now directed to the performance management of British local government:

[My talk was about the dilemmas surrounding realising article 9.5 of the European charter of local self-government: The protection of financially weaker local authorities calls for the institution of financial equalisation procedures or equivalent measures which are designed to correct the effects of the unequal distribution of potential sources of finance and of the financial burden they must support. Such procedures or measures shall not diminish the discretion local authorities may exercise within their own sphere of responsibility]

I've attached a photo of the print I bought for Linda in the Asakusa Nakamise market with help from Shigeru and Yoko. I love these fish. Are they mackerel? It is good to see her again - the longest time we've been apart in over thirty years. Please be inventive and creative in maintaining our friendship. It cannot be the same as being with any of you directly but we can try to stay close until we can embrace again as true friends. Love Simon

[On 23/06/08 I had an e-mail from Satoko Yamanaka - one of my guides in Tokyo and ex-student of mine: Dear Simon, Thank you for your email and telling me your blog. I'd like to talk about "the fish you bought" in Asakusa. I think it was discerning of you to choose it. The woodblock print with a Haiku poem is one of the "A shoal of Fishes" series by Hiroshige. The fish are Japanese "ayu (sweetfish)", which only lives in a clean river. The Haiku poem was written by Shizue Haruzono “Aki no ame furitemo mizuno kakekiyoku saihamiesaru tamagawa no ayu” If I translate this into English roughly…
Despite the rain in autumn
Sweetfish are swimming livelily in Tama River
...I wish I could have a poetic talent. Hirosige is one of my favorite artists. I hope you like his works too! Kind regards, Sato]


* * *

From arriving at Narita on Saturday morning guided by my host - Shigeru Naiki's careful notes on the route to my hotel - Le Port Kojimachi - to my departure on Tuesday morning, I was able to pack meetings, visits, conversations, dining, shopping, strolling and momentarily relaxing into three days including a talk to civil servants of the Naigai Club at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. My suitcase is overflowing with presents to take home as well as gifts from my hosts, some of which I managed to reciprocate. On Monday a guide took us around the spacious corridors, terraces of Tokyo City Hall. As we left we glimpsed, amid a phalanx of minders and aides, the three term Governor of Tokyo - Shintaro Ishihara - famous for right wing views, controversial public statements and his lead on carbon-reduction policies, sauntering into the building.
* * *
I found those words I was looking for, from Melville on depravity in the oppressed and Vickers on tactlessness:
'Depravity in the oppressed is no apology for the oppressor; but rather an additional stigma to him, as being in large degree, the effect, and not the cause and justification of oppression’ Herman Melville, Chapter 14 White-Jacket

Sir Geoffrey Vickers, who I listened to one evening when he was in his 90s, recounted a comment by a British diplomat, after a pre-war meeting he'd also attended, with Hermann Göring. Despite some lack of tact, this high Nazi party figure had, Vickers suggested afterwards, been "quite pleasant". His companion remarked 'Tactlessness impies an absolute inability to understand other human beings; it is one of the most terrifying sins against the spirit.'

This reminds me to make more of the difference between etiquette and politeness.
* * *
10 June 2008 in Bendigo. Rain at last – through the day and into the evening, soaking the paddocks, and wetting the fallen leaves in the shiny streets of Bendigo.
Long ago - last Thursday - from the plane between Gold Coast and Melbourne, I saw forested Bendigo – a miniscule map far below while we, a silver sliver drawing a tiny contrail across the blue between Gold Coast and Melbourne, 30,000 feet above the State of Victoria, stewards serving snacks. Yet this weekend, following Annie, I cycled 10 kilometres into Bendigo, enjoyed coffee in the town, strolled intrigued around The Archibald 08 at the city art museum - portraits by talents from across the commonwealth, 19th century art, installations of the day, soaking up a sense of place along with coffee, and a delectable selection of Australian and European wines – including a white from Macedonia, an Australian prosecco, and a rich Gerwurtztraminer. I’ve gazed on the Indian Ocean from the harbour at Fremantle, seen the Nullabar beneath fluffy clouds, the Great Australian Bight, the ironbark landscape of northern Victoria, soaking up history, touched the bark base of aboriginal dream time pictures, compared the resonant archetypal myths of Australia’s Ned Kelly and England’s Robin Hood. In company with John Martin I’ve flown ten thousand miles within the continent, with more ease than if I were taking trains between Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The City of Bendigo once unknown, then seen from afar, begins to emerge as a history, and as a welcoming place, where I've cycled, strolled and gazed.

The last of our four workshops was in Perth – in Melville. Like the others it went really well; way beyond my expectations. Later in the week John and I go to Melbourne to meet John R who is friendly to further work on enhancing political-management relationships - leadership at the apex, making good government. Perhaps I really can come again – this time with Lin. I did not - could not - have anticipated how much I would feel for this country. It seduces me in many ways I haven’t quite understood – but isn’t that how seduction works? Flying, driving, walking and cycling in Australia I find myself with a feeling for this country that I didn’t feel for America – much as I learned from there. I can’t explain it. It could be my age, the company I keep - that and more. This Saturday evening, amid the smells of autumn, a bonfire blazed on the neighbour’s property; above us the new sight, for me, of the bright Southern Cross, the 'upside-down' moon and the Milky Way strewn across the heavens.

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