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Archive for the ‘Culture/Arts’ Category

Soldier to Saint: RISE Theatre’s inspirational play about St Alban is touring again this spring. See post at Jericho Tree.

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Two plays for the whole family by Catholic theatre company Ten Ten, Sat 8 Feb, London. See post at Jericho Tree.

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Family traditions surrounding St Lucy’s Day. See the post by Anne Morton at Jericho Tree.

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The greatest Advent calendars of all time: Number 1. See the post here at Jericho Tree.

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Biblical perspectives on Movember and our love affair with facial hair. See the post by Niall Leahy SJ at Jericho Tree.

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The ‘Catholics and youth culture’ problem: how to use the culture without dumbing down the faith. See the post at Jericho Tree.

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I’ve been involved in a new Catholic website called Jericho Tree.

You can visit the site here. Do subscribe to the email list in the right-hand side-bar.

You can visit the Facebook page here. Please do publicise the site by liking the page.

And you can follow the Twitter feed here @jerichotree.

If you’ve got any feedback it’s most helpful to leave it on the site itself - on the feedback page here.

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Here is the blurb from the ABOUT page.

Jericho Tree is a magazine-style website bringing together articles and videos about faith, culture, lifestyle and news – from a Catholic perspective.

The title ‘Jericho Tree’ refers to the meeting between Zacchaeus and Jesus in Chapter 19 of the Gospel of St Luke. As Jesus enters Jericho, Zacchaeus longs to see him, but he is too short, and the crowds are too big. So he climbs a tree in order to get a better view.

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

“All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’”

The idea is to create a forum for great Catholic writing, mainly from a UK perspective, but with some international contributors as well; and to link to other articles and videos that take a fresh look at the world from a Catholic perspective. Quiet a few people have promised to write, and a few have already started. We’ll see how it develops over the next few months!

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Moving

I moved to Newman House last week, and I haven’t had a chance to post since then. It’s great to be here after all the anticipation of the summer. Things are pretty quiet, in the sense that most of the students have not arrived for the new academic year yet. There is a handful of medics (those who have begun their clinical training start at the beginning of September), departing students from last year, and summer guests. The rush of the new year begins properly in about two weeks.

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It’s a fascinating part of London to live in. Euston and Regents Park to the north; Bloomsbury, the British Museum and all the university colleges to the east; the hubbub of Covent Garden, Soho and the West End directly to the south; and the high energy of Tottenham Court Road (and the restaurants of Charlotte Street) to the west. I’m having great fun exploring the local streets, working out where to get my hair cut, where to post a letter, which cafe is good for reading or meeting or surfing the net.

And above all, I’m beginning to get my head and heart round what it means to be involved in university chaplaincy. I’ll report back in a few months…

bt

The local landmark is the BT Tower. Not a pretty building, but one that seems to hold its place in the affections of Londoners, if for no other reason than that in its Dalek-like way it has always been there (i.e. been there for most of our lives). You can see the top of the tower from my bedroom window. (The photo is from the street round the corner). Now I get a thrill whenever I see it from some distant part of London and think ‘that’s my home!’

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I was at a funeral in Poplar last week, near the London Docklands. It’s the first time I have visited the Catholic church there, or wandered round the area.

This was the old ‘Chinatown’, before the Chinese moved to Soho in the 1950s and 1960s. I had no idea that the memory of the Chinese presence endures in the street names:

sign1 by SW

sign2 by SW

sign3 by SW

One friend who grew up here remembered a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by ‘Harry’. Another friend who grew up round the corner in Limehouse told me years ago about the wok maker who lived on his street when he was a child.

There are lots of ‘local history’ and ‘ethnic history’ type books about the Chinese experience in London, I just haven’t gone into them very deeply. There is, amazingly, a famous protestant pastor who ministered to the Chinese in the post-war period. His name? Pastor Stephen Wang! I’m not joking; I have a book about him – available here on Amazon.

There are personal connections for me in all this. My Chinese great-grandfather first came to the UK at the very end of the nineteenth century, and his route was through the Liverpool docks. But when his son, my father’s father, emigrated with his Chinese wife from Canton in the early 1930s, they arrived at the docks in London, went straight to Chinatown (i.e. Limehouse/Poplar) to stock up on Chinese supplies, and then travelled to Sheffield to set up the Chinese laundry that kept them in business for many years. Maybe they stayed with friends on Pekin Street or Canton Street or Nankin Street…

Whenever I meet an elderly person from Sheffield I ask them if they knew the Chinese laundry on Ecclesall Road in Sheffield, and it’s amazing how many remember having their shirts ironed or collars starched by my grandparents all those years ago.

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Just an amusing beach anecdote from World Youth Day: I met one of our seminarians who has just got back from Rio. They had a fantastic time with the Westminster group. I said to him, ‘Where were you staying’? And he said, ‘On the beach’. So I said, ‘I know you were all on the beach, but where were you staying for the other days?’ And he said, ‘On the beach!’ It seems that the Westminster crowd, instead of slumming it in the suburbs, were in a hotel right there on the beach itself, and they slept out on the beach for the vigil not because they needed to but just to get the vibe.

Anyway, that’s not my beach quote. Apparently the pilgrims got chatting to an atheist at the airport on the flight out to Rio. It was a friendly conversation, but they spooked him when they said that there was a big Catholic festival in Rio and that lots of young Catholics were flying out to participate. His response: ‘Oh well, I’ll just avoid them by staying on the beach the whole time’.

That’s my beach quote!

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I’ve just finished reading Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a sprawling, fascinating, maddening book that is badly in need of a copy-editor. But one of Taleb’s pet hates (he has many) is copy-editors.

antifragile

There is a simple and profound central idea. Think of anything at all: a person, an idea, a relationship, a business, a country, a piece of technology, an ecosystem.

Some things are fragile. When some kind of crisis occurs, an unexpected event, a systemic shock – then they break. It might mean a small bit of damage or the destruction of the entire unit. Fragile things are harmed by crises.

What is the opposite of fragile? Our instinct is to use words like robust, strong, solid, resilient, perhaps flexible or adaptable. Robust and flexible things do not break when a shock comes; they can withstand crises and shocks. That’s true. They are unharmed. But this isn’t the opposite of fragile. The opposite would involve something that positively benefits from a crisis or a shock, that comes out better rather than just the same. We genuinely don’t have a word for this, which is why Taleb invents one: antifragilility.

He gives a neat illustration. If you put something fragile in the post, like a teapot, you pack it carefully and put a big sticker on the outside saying, ‘Fragile: Handle with Care’. What is the ‘opposite’ kind of package? You are tempted to say this would be a robust or strong parcel. But if you send something in the post that is more-or-less unbreakable, like a block of wood or a stone, you don’t put a sticker on the outside saying ‘Unbreakable: Don’t Be Anxious About This’, you just send it without any warning signs. The opposite kind of package, with something antifragile inside, would have a sticker saying something like this: ‘Antifragile: Handle Carelessly, Drop Me, Be Reckless With Me, Try To Damage Me’.

What would go into such a package?

Taleb shows how many things in life and society are antifragile. They actually benefit from crises and shocks, at least within certain limits. The human body is one example, it doesn’t benefit from being pampered, it grows stronger through certain shocks and stresses – within limits. Some ideas only develop through challenges and awkward confrontations. Some businesses are perfectly poised to benefit from difficult and unexpected situations, because they are able to adapt and seize new opportunities. Some relationships are able to discover new depths and different kinds of intimacy through problems and difficulties.

What is it that makes some things fragile, some robust, and some antifragile? You’ll have to read the book yourself!

The other big theme is the nature of rationality: how we try to predict the unpredictable, and when we fail and are caught off guard we try to pretend we knew what was going to happen. It’s much wiser, argues Taleb, to admit that many things, especially future crises and disasters, are completely beyond our powers of reasoning (even though they may be rational in themselves). The trick is not to be ready for a particular unexpected event, which is by its very nature unpredictable, but to be ready for something unexpected and unpredictable to happen, so that when it does happen we are able to react in a creative and intelligent way, bringing an unexpected good out of these unexpected difficult circumstances (antifragility), and to create systems that are resilient to major shocks or at least not set up so that they will shatter when the first unpredictable jolt takes place (a certain kind of flexibility and robustness).

It was the perfect bedtime book for me. Easy to read, full of stories, provocative. And it genuinely made me rethink a lot of things I had taken for granted without question before.

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The online Guardian site has a Guardian Witness project: “Share your view of the world: your chance to have videos, photos and stories featured on the Guardian”. It’s a kind of democratic journalism – a simple and uncensored way of uploading your own perspectives on a given topic, onto an elegant Pinterest-style site.

guardian witness

One of the current topics is “Your Church Congregation”. There are 293 contributions as I write. You have until Friday 28 June to upload images from your own church. Why not add your own? It’s a great way to share the life of your own community; and at the very least it will help Guardian readers to appreciate (in case they don’t already) how alive our Christian churches are.

See the Church Congregation page here.

This is the spiel:

Who are the Christians in Britain today? On any given Sunday, there will be at least 2.5m people in churches of various sorts, but each congregation tends to be an island with little contact with others. So, we want you to share your photographs and videos of your own congregations, everywhere from converted units on an industrial estate to magnificent medieval cathedrals.

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Fasting is suddenly fashionable, and the ancient Christian tradition of not just abstaining from meat but radically cutting down on food for two days a week (Wednesdays and Fridays) has become the new norm.

It’s the 5:2 diet, of course, but Oliver Burkeman asks how we can apply this ‘fasting and feasting’ philosophy to other areas of life.

It sometimes seems as if every other person you meet is following the Fast Diet, also known as the 5:2 Diet, the eating plan first detailed in a BBC2 documentary last summer and then in a bestselling book, by the journalists Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer. It entails eating very small amounts of food (600 calories for men, 500 for women) on two non-consecutive days of the week, and consuming whatever you like on the other five. [It involves] the crucial psychological insight that extreme self-denial almost never seems to work.

The grander claims made for the 5:2 approach are debatable at best: it’s far from clear that it will stave off ageing, dementia or death. (The best results so far have been confined to mice.) Even Mosley and Spencer admit there’s nothing magic about the 5:2 ratio, or the specific calorie limit for fast days. But because you’re never more than 24 hours away from eating whatever you want, it’s a way of eating less – and of being mindful about what you eat – that people actually stick to. It doesn’t overtax your willpower; nor does it conjure images of a joyless life spent permanently without burgers. “Conscious self-denial,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed.” The Fast Diet has a built-in remedy for that.

Which raises a question: might the 5:2 approach work equally well when it comes to those other bad habits we struggle to change – such as failing to exercise, spending too much time online or constantly worrying or complaining? [...]

Why does this approach work when others seem to fail?

The fact that extreme self-denial often doesn’t work, or at least not for long, is one of the oldest truths about human nature: Odysseus, according to the myth, had himself bound to the mast of his ship because he knew he couldn’t resist the sirens by willpower alone. If willpower is a “depletable resource”, as experiments by the psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have suggested, then it’s not hard to see one reason for this: the self-discipline muscle simply becomes exhausted. (In one famous study, students made to resist the temptation of cookies and chocolates had less capacity to persevere at geometry exercises.) [...]

There are other reasons a plan such as 5:2 might make habit change easier. It’s simple and therefore easy to remember – but it’s also precise, and therefore easy to follow. (Compare that with the food writerMichael Pollan‘s famous summary of the rules of healthy eating: “Eat food, not too much, mainly plants”. Being simple but not precise, this is hard to implement.) It also introduces a challenging constraint, of the kind of thing likely to provoke creative thinking: if you’re allowed to consume only 500 calories a day, or banned from frittering the evening on the internet, you might come up with some imaginative new recipes, or original new ways to spend your leisure time.

This moderate sort of approach won’t work for everyone, nor for every bad habit: sometimes, going cold turkey is preferable. “I can’t drink a little, child, therefore I never touch it,” Samuel Johnson once explained to the poet Hannah More. “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” (That’s the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy.) But if absolutist bans have never worked for you yet, the 5:2 approach could be worth a try.

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Kolbe's gift

Book now for this new production from Ten Ten Theatre. This is from their website:

Kolbe’s Gift is a full-length play written by David Gooderson which tells the story of two men, Fr Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, and Franek Gajowniczec, a Polish soldier, whose lives crossed in the most extraordinary way in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. Spanning three decades, Kolbe’s Gift will be produced by Ten Ten Theatre with a cast of seven actors at The Leicester Square Theatre in Central London for one week only in October 2013. With many enriching events surrounding the production, it promises to be a theatrical event not to be missed.

“This place is not simply a concentration camp. It’s a laboratory dedicated to the destruction of human identity. It is the gospel of hate, which can only be defeated by the Gospel of Love.”

In 1941, Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe entered the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.

A gifted man, Kolbe was the founder of monasteries in Poland and Japan, produced a monthly magazine with a circulation of over one million, and formed an international movement to help bring people to the Catholic faith. Then, a chance encounter with an ordinary soldier, Franek Gajowniczec, led Kolbe to an extraordinary act – walking away from all that he had and could have achieved.

David Gooderson’s powerful play tells the true story of these two men. One became feted across the globe. The other faded into obscurity. This is their story.

Tickets priced from £12.50 – £20.00 can be booked through the theatre box office on 08448 733433 or via their website.

There is also a booking page here at the TenTen site.

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I posted a few weeks ago about Soldier to Saint, the contemporary drama by RISE Theatre based on the story of St Alban. See my earlier comments here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_kJ5NmqpNTI

I’ve just heard that the tour dates and venues have been publicised, so do see if you can get to one of the performances around the UK. See their site here. The dates and venues are copied below.

27 Jun 8.00pm ST ALBANS Ss Alban & Stephen Church E-mail: sylviacwhite@talktalk.net  Call: 01727 854596

28 Jun 7.30pm TUNBRIDGE WELLS St Augustine’s RC Church Call: 07776 143237

30 Jun 7.00pm BRISTOL St Augustine’s RC Church Tickets available on the door

04 Jul 7.30pm HODDESDON St Augustine’s RC Church Call: 01992 440986 or email hoddesdon@rcdow.org.uk

05 Jul 7.30pm READING OLOP & Bl. Dominic Barberi RC Church Buy online: s2sreading.ticketsource.co.uk

06 Jul 7.30pm PORTISHEAD St Joseph’s RC Primary School Email: administrator@stjosephschurch.eclipse.co.uk

10 Jul 7.00pm TORQUAY St Cuthbert Mayne School E-mail: Call 07906 234210

11 Jul 7.30pm FALMOUTH St Mary’s RC Primary School E-mail: maryiedwards@talktalk.net  Call: 01326 312763

12 Jul 7.30pm PENZANCE St. Mary’s RC Primary School E-mail: maria@st-marys-rc-pz.cornwall.sch.uk

17 Jul 7.30pm RUISLIP Most Sacred Heart Church Email: mothers_prayer@hotmail.com  Call: 07966 529703

18 Jul 7.30pm REDHILL St Joseph’s RC Church Call: 01737 761017 (Mon to Fri, 9am – 5pm only)

19 Jul 7.30pm YATELEY St Swithun’s RC Church Call St Swithun’s: 01252 872732 / Call: 01276 34208

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I managed to get a ticket for the very last day of the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum on Sunday.

At one level, the works are extraordinary. To stand in front of a 40,000 year old Lion Man carved in ivory; to see a flute from the same period made from the bone of a griffon vulture, with six carefully spaced holes waiting to be fingered; to pass from one exhibition case to the next, a succession of statues, figurines, etchings, carvings, tools, weapons, most of them with some form of figurative imagery, thousands and thousands of years old. And to think that for some reason it was in this period in Europe that figurative art first developed.

At another level, it’s extraordinarily ordinary. These are images and carvings that could have been created yesterday, in the local art college, or even the local school. They clearly have a huge and unknown symbolic value, but as examples of figurative art they are simply very graceful and well-kept examples of the human urge to represent what is real.

This is what the human mind does. It produces images of what is out there in the real world (an etching of a lion jumping). It forms imaginary creations by playing with these images mentally and combining and recreating them (the head of a lion on the body of a man). It makes tools (a carefully carved stone core), weapons (a small pouch to launch an arrow), and musical instruments (the vulture bone flute). The mind or imagination works symbolically, and this is what allows us to transform the world, because the symbols don’t just stay in the mind – they change how we relate to the world and what we do in and with it.

It’s the lack of distance between then and now that is so extraordinary. If we could meet these ancestors of ours, and have just a few weeks of contact, perhaps just a few days, we would have learnt their language, and they ours, and we would be communicating as neighbours, as brothers and sisters. And yes, we would be working out whether they were friends or enemies, and the whole of human history would unfold once more…

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There was an extraordinary moment in the evolution of human consciousness and the sociology of cinema etiquette last week. Perhaps it was the first time it had ever taken place – and I was there as a witness! Like being there in 1903 when the Wright brothers flew their way into history; or sitting in the space capsule as Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the surface of the moon.

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So I’m sitting in the Cineworld Fulham Road last week as the trailers take place before the new Start Trek film (disappointing: 6/10). The guy next to me takes out his mobile phone, checks for messages, leaves it on, and then – this is the Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment – he places it in the moulded plastic fizzy drinks holder attached to the front of the arm rest between us. No self-consciousness; no shame. The bottom of the phone comes forward, towards him; the back leans against the upper edge of the drinks holder; so the phone is at a perfect 37 degree tilt from the vertical for him to see. And he’s watching the film as he is glancing up and down at his incoming messages – like a driver with the TomTom in the edge of vision.

I was too awestruck at the audacity of this technological leap to be shocked. It’s the kind of unforseen improvisation that delights and appalls me at the same time. I bet you big money that within two years there will be dedicated and beautifully designed mobile phone holders on the arm of every cinema seat, but this time just above the fizzy drinks holder. What would my friend have done if he had had a 6 litre carton of coke as well? [Just for the record: This is my idea, and I hold the patent...]

Is this the end of civilisation or the beginning? Is this common in London or New York or Shanghai and I’ve just never witnessed if before?

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I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favourite books: True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, by playwright and director David Mamet.

mamet

At first glance, it’s a trenchant attack by an experienced and opinionated drama teacher on Stanislavsky and the whole theory of ‘Method Acting’. Method Actors try to get inside the mind and heart of the characters they are playing. The more they ‘become’ the character they are playing, and the more they identify with the experience of the fictional person they are trying to bring to life, then the more authentic – so the theory goes – their portrayal will be.

Mamet says this is just nonsense. The actor just needs to act. Their inner experience has nothing to do with the effectiveness of their acting. The good actor, as opposed to the ‘Great Method Actor’, simply plays the part, using all his or her skills and experience of the stage. The success comes through the strength of the writing, and the extent to which the actor can communicate the ‘practical’ intentions and concerns of the character: what they want, where they are going, what they are worrying about, why they are excited, etc.

It’s this dynamism that makes a character interesting. This is what makes drama dramatic. We are not moved by a character’s emotion (that’s a cheap response); we are moved by the dramatic situation that causes the emotion in the character. So the primary task of the actor is not to simulate the inner experience or emotion of the character, but to put his or her dramatic situation onstage in front of us. They are quite different tasks.

You can apply this to so many different situations, and not just to acting – which is why I find the book so inspiring. It’s about discovering a different kind of authenticity from that which is normally on offer in our culture. To be authentic is not to go inwards, to summon up great depths of emotion, to express ourselves without self-restraint: this is authenticity as ‘sincerity’. To be truly authentic is simply to act for something worthwhile, to live a life worth living. It’s more objective, more matter-of-fact.

There is still a kind of transparency (which has a great currency in our culture), but this is because when you see what someone is striving for, it helps you to understand who they truly are. You don’t always need to go inward; you don’t need to get them on Oprah.

This is basically Aristotle. It’s the telos (the end, the purpose) that defines a person’s actions; and it’s the telos that defines the person. I don’t discover who you are by having you pour out your heart to me (although that might, in some situations, be an important moment in our relationship!); I discover who you are by seeing how you live and what you care about and who you love and what you would die for.

It’s the action, the life, that makes you the person you are, and makes you interesting or not so interesting. The inner commentary that you may offer me, or the emotions that you may experience, may help me to understand you a little bit better, but they won’t actually show me who you are. I need to discover that by the way you act. This is what Manet and Aristotle know.

Here are a few of my favourite quotations from the book:

Nothing in the world is less interesting that an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions. The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness…

The good play does not need the support of the actor, in effect, narrating its psychological undertones, and the bad play will not benefit from it…

In ‘real life’ the mother begging for her child’s life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance – these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in ‘real life’ to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch…

Great drama, onstage or off, is not the performance of deeds with great emotion, but the performance of great deeds with no emotion whatever…

The simple performance of the great deed, onstage or off, is called ‘heroism’…

Preoccupation with effect is preoccupation with the self, and not only is it joyless, it’s a waste of time… Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make out intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performance becomes pure and clear…

There is much, much more to this simple book – 127 pages, large print. Do take a peak.

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Interesting to read this short piece by Jenny McCartney about the way we try to hide from the reality of death in our Western culture. She doesn’t give any real spiritual perspective, and she doesn’t speculate about how this lack of a spiritual perspective might be the very cause of the problem she highlights – but her comments about how death has almost become taboo are worth reflecting on.

It is the fashion, in modern times, to emphasise the need for tastefulness in talking of death, of a certain concealing decorum. We used to be like this about sex, but that’s gone now: the media is saturated with sexual imagery and advice, and everywhere you turn, public figures are kissing each other lasciviously on the lips – particularly if they are glamorous women – and telling you more about their bedroom antics than anyone ever asked to know.

The taboo has simply shifted, however. As the door to the bedroom has been thrown open, access to the deathbed has been barred. No one seems to linger long there, conversationally or otherwise: too often, a death is treated like an embarrassing fact, a regrettable failure of life that is best hushed up.

We are built to cling to life, unless that instinct is withered in us through long suffering, extreme altruism or despair, and so when we read about the deaths of other people, we are moved partly because we start imagining our own: the pain of leaving the people we love, and their confusion at our departure. Or we think of the helplessness of watching someone we love slipping beyond our reach. The notion of death is so mysterious and enormous that, in many cases, it seems easier just to lock it away, although it has a way of escaping and sneaking up on our peripheral vision.

The rapid expansion of the “anti-ageing” industry in the West peddles an airbrushed vision of a world in which ageing or mortality can be almost indefinitely deferred by the dutiful ingestion of supplements and restless application of pseudo-scientific skin treatments. What it can’t offer, of course, is any guaranteed change to the final outcome.

Still, the option of pretending to ignore death (for a period of our lives, at least) has not been available to the bulk of humanity throughout history. In the 15th century, when the Ars moriendi, or “Art of Dying”, was written, the book desperately sought to popularise the concept of a “good death”, partly because – in the aftermath of the Black Death – an early demise was so frequent and lurid that some kind of etiquette guide was required. Both real-life accounts and novels were later preoccupied with the deathbed scene, which was, in many ways, the dramatic high point of a person’s life. It was their moment in which to forgive, regret, recant or curse, the final deal, the instant at which they revealed their essential self, and onlookers were unashamedly interested in it.

I can never think of the deaths of those I knew and loved, even those who were very old, without some small recurrent aftershock, some fresh sense of the overwhelming strangeness of their disappearance. The ritual of mourning and the ceremony of the funeral or memorial provides shapes for grief to stumble into, yet even those are designed primarily to comfort the living. What our society presently lacks – save for a few enlightened homes and hospices – is much structured means of comforting the dying, who are too often abandoned in hospital wards surprised by fear and pain.

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I’ve just seen the Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern; it’s on until 27 May if you want to catch it. It’s interesting as a lesson in art history, but disappointing as an artistic experience. Not many of the paintings have any real power or beauty; the tones and colours (from all the different periods) are so limited; and even in terms of line and draftsmanship the images seem either simplistic and without much grace or overcomplicated and unbalanced.

The exception is the famous comic book art from the early 1960s, and I’d almost call these masterpieces: “M-maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio”, “Whaam”, “Oh Jeff I love you too but…”

whaam - roy litchenstein 1963 by oddstock

The history is important. When the Western art establishment was locked into abstract expressionism (which I love), along came Lichtenstein and WHAAM: he put some energy, drama, line and subject matter back into painting. You can argue as much as you like whether it was celebratory or ironic or just commercially clever. The fact is that in almost a single gesture it brought Western art back to where it had been for three thousand years: using images to tell stories. Lichtenstein’s pop art is about recovery and restoration. In the late 1950s, comic books were more in the mainstream of the Western canon than the studios of Manhattan and Chicago, and it took Lichtenstein to remind everyone of that.

IMG_0395 by clare and ben

It is the aesthetic of the ‘pregnant moment’. If you already know, more or less, the story, then you don’t need to read the whole comic. You just need to choose a single frame, a pregnant moment, which captures the drama and allows us to insert ourselves into the story. This is as true for WHAAM and M-maybe as it is for a painting of the Nativity or the Birth of Venus. The narrative fans out, forwards and backwards, from that key moment, just as the future and the past are continually fanning out from the present in ordinary human experience. We are only ever within a single moment, but we can’t experience or interpret that moment without being conscious of some kind of story.

Laura Cumming has a gushing review here. But Alastair Smart is more critical. Info and tickets are here.

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A couple of years ago I saw a production of Soldier to Saint by RISE Theatre at a youth retreat. It is one of the most powerful Christian dramas I have ever seen, bringing to life – in a contemporary setting – the story of St Alban, our first martyr.

I was delighted to hear that the play is being revived again this summer, and on tour round the UK from 28th June – 12th July 2013. The reason I’m blogging now is not to invite you to the shows themselves (I’ll post the venues and dates later on), but to see if your parish might be interested in hosting one of the performances. It’s a wonderful opportunity for inspiring parishioners in their faith, and for evangelisation and outreach. All the details are below, with the contact email at the bottom.

After a successful London run in 2011, RISE Theatre is reviving its ground-breaking one-act play Soldier to Saint, bringing this challenging & thought-provoking drama to the very heart of your community!

It is the year 2020 and London is in crisis. As Christians are forced into hiding and rioting hits the streets, a soldier – John Alban, strikes an unlikely friendship with a fugitive priest, a friendship that could cost him his life.

For such a time as this, John Alban must now make a choice between his old way of life or following a new path – a path that will change his life forever.

Performed by RISE Theatre, Soldier to Saint brings to life the inspirational true story of Saint Alban, England’s first Christian martyr – a compelling tale of courage, friendship and sacrifice.

RISE Theatre would like to bring this inspirational play straight to your doorstep, offering your community a unique way to explore the journey to faith.

BOOK NOW: Limited Tour Dates available from 28th June – 12th July 2013.

If you would like to host Soldier to Saint at your church, or for more information on cost, please contact Stephen at info@risetheatre.co.uk

See there website here, which has a short video on the homepage, and more details about the tour.

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This just came in from Ten Ten Theatre, as part of their preparation for the staging of Kolbe’s Gift in London in October.

kolbe-banner

Saturday 20th April, 12.00 pm to 3.30 pm
Notre Dame de France church, off Leicester Square, WC2H 7BX

• Would you like to play a vital part in a unique event during the Year of Faith?
• Do you want to find new ways to communicate matters of faith in a relevant, dynamic way?
• Do you want to engage in the New Evangelisation in a practical way?
• Do you want to meet other young people committed in their faith and passionate about communicating it to others?

You are warmly invited to an exciting, one-off event with the Catholic, professional theatre company, Ten Ten Theatre on the afternoon of Saturday 20th April 2013.

We are delighted to be staging a brand new production of `Kolbe’s Gift’ – a thought-provoking and inspiring play by David Gooderson about the life of St Maximilian Kolbe.  The play will be performed at the Leicester Square Theatre in October 2013.

We need dynamic, outgoing, passionate people who can communicate the vision for this play to others – if you think this is for you, then please get in touch with us about coming along on Saturday 20th April for a training day.  You will then go out to the world and give a two-minute talk about the production in churches, prayer groups and other gatherings throughout London and the South-East.

On the training day on 20 April, you will discover more about Kolbe’s Gift and be trained in giving a short presentation about the play in parishes across the South East between April and July. You will have the chance to meet with other people excited about faith, the arts and evangelisation and have a free lunch!!

In return for speaking at ALL masses in at least one parish, you will be given a free ticket to a performance of `Kolbe’s Gift’ at The Leicester Square Theatre in October.

To register or for more information, contact:
office@tententheatre.co.uk or phone 0845 388 3162

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It’s good to be ambitious in a film. It takes a lot of courage to deal with sickness, mortality, bereavement, love, friendship, marriage, parenting, creativity, culture, fame, failure – oh, and Beethoven – in under two hours.

An acclaimed New York string quartet have been playing together for twenty-five years. The cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And with this unexpected crisis everything else starts to unravel – the music, the relationships, even the past.

Most of this works. There are some powerful scenes. But somehow it didn’t quite fit together for me; I didn’t quite believe in the characters. It felt contrived.

Now surely this is an unfair criticism. The whole point of a chamber piece like this is that it is contrived: five characters (there is a daughter too), on stage before us for two hours, everything as carefully constructed as Beethoven’s quartet itself (op. 131).

It made me wonder about what was missing. Why is it that in a classic Woody Allen film (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, etc), however extraordinary the characters, and however overwrought the plot, you still believe that they have an existence beyond the film, that you are stepping into their life rather than seeing a life momentarily created for your entertainment?

Why does the willing suspension of disbelief sometimes work and sometimes not? I think this was too actorly, in a self-conscious way; verging on the melodramatic; and simply not as funny as Allen. And without the ragged edges that allow the film in front of you to fade into an imagined reality behind the screen. All of this, somehow, takes away from the authenticity that is the mark of a great film.

So it’s a good film! Go and see it. But with something missing…

Here is the Beethoven:

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Every few months we hear about the impending death of television, how everyone has shifted to the internet, to social media, to Web 2.0, to Web 3.0… Yes, there are some shifts, but here in the UK we are watching far, far more TV than just a few years ago.

tv head by ElAlispruz

You can read this recent report from TV Licensing.

Here is the key statistic:

We watch an average of 4 hours 2 minutes of TV a day, up from an average of 3 hours 36 minutes a day in 2006.

Four hours a day! This is an average day in the UK in 2013. Seems like a lot to me.

Here are some of the technological shifts:

  • We have fewer TVs: The average household now has 1.83 TV sets, down from an average of 2.3 sets in 2003.
  • But we’re watching more television on more devices: We watch an average of 4 hours 2 minutes of TV a day, up from an average of 3 hours 36 minutes a day in 2006. A TV Licence covers you to watch on any TV, mobile device or tablet in your home or on the move. In 2012, fewer than one per cent of us watch only time-shifted TV.
  • Premium TV features are on the rise: More than a third of the TV market value in 2012 was from sales of 3D TVs, and sales of jumbo screens (43 inch or more) increased 10 per cent in the past 12 months.
  • Social networks allow us to engage with each other in real-time like never before: 40 per cent of all tweets are about television shows between 6.30pm and 10pm.

So despite there being more devices and platforms, we are still gathering round the ‘hearth’ of a premium TV at the centre of the home. And instead of being completely absorbed in the entertainment experience, we are tweeting about what we are watching in real-time, which is probably no more than an extension of the chatter that would take place round the TV in previous generations.

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Another Californian self-help craze; part of the booming ‘happiness industry’. It’s called ‘Want-ology’: the science or therapeutic process of discovering what you truly want and setting you free to pursue it.

It's all about Me, by Randy Willis

Rhys Blakely interviews Want-ology’s creator, Kevin Kreitman (a woman…).

For $300 or so, a certified wantologist will quiz you for several hours, subjecting you to a process that is said to draw on psychology, neural science and cybernetics.

“We are only conscious of 3 to 10 per cent of our thought,” she says. “You think that you make decisions consciously, but it’s all underpinned by this hidden system.” When you find yourself in a rut, “it’s usually because all this unconscious stuff is tangled together like a knot”. The job of Want-ology, she says, is to untangle it.

Here is an example of the therapeutic process. A female client came to the therapist, thinking that she wanted a bigger house. The conversation went like this:

What do you want?

A bigger house.

How would you feel if you lived in a bigger house?

Peaceful.

What else makes you feel peaceful?

Walks by the ocean.

Do you ever take walks near where you live that remind you of the ocean?

Certain ones, yes.

What do you like about those walks?

I hear the sound of water and feel surrounded by green.

As Blakely explains:

Instead of moving, she turned a room in her home into a miniature sanctuary, with potted ferns and a table-top fountain. Her wantologist had steered her to a more nuanced understanding of what she really desired – inner peace.

And saved her $400,000 at the same time…

At one level, this is surely a good process. Not losing the $300, but having someone help you work out what you are really seeking, or what’s really bothering you. Our motivations can be incredibly complex, and the heart is a mysterious and sometimes deceitful thing. We think we want something or need someone, and then we realise – perhaps when it is too late – that we were just reacting to something, or acting out of impulse, or trapped in a habit, or replaying an old desire that didn’t actually exist any longer.

Usually, we do this kind of reflecting with a friend, the kind of friend who will be honest enough to say, ‘What’s really bugging you?’ or ‘What do you really want?’ And then we start untying the knots. Or we do it in prayer, in conversation with the Lord.

This is the whole thrust of Sartre’s existential psychoanalysis. Not, like Freudian analysis, to discover some unconscious and therefore unaccepted or repressed motivation. But instead to gain some clarity about the primary motive, the overarching intention, that lies within the muddle of our ordinary desires and actions. It’s not uncovering the subconscious, but making sense of what is within consciousness, seeing the pattern.

And this is not unlike Ignatian spiritual discernment, where you learn to recognise what is the deepest desire of your own heart, and what is God’s deepest desire for you, by reflecting prayerfully on those situations that bring spiritual consolation and light, and those that bring confusion and an unhealthy inner darkness.

None of this means, of course, that you should necessarily follow what you discover to be your heart’s one desire. Clarity is one thing (whether this comes through a Want-ology therapist, existential psychoanalysis, or an Ignatian retreat); but the moral wisdom to work out what you should do with this clarity is another thing. That’s why I wouldn’t endorse this kind of therapy, without knowing what its moral framework is.

It’s good, generally, to know yourself better; as long as the therapist isn’t going the next step and encouraging you to follow your dreams uncritically, heedless of the moral or spiritual consequences, or of the mess they might make to the reality of your present life and relationships. OK, mess can sometimes be good; but not always.

[Rhys Blakely writes in the times2, the Times, March 14 2013, p4]

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At last, there is an Easter egg that actually tells you something about Easter.

The Real Easter Egg Packaging by Lee McCoy

I haven’t seen one yet; apparently, they are on sale in the main supermarket chains (apart from Asda). So I can only report the fact, and I can’t comment on either the theology/kerygma/catechesis presented on the packaging, or the quality of the chocolate! You can buy them online here.

The Real Easter Egg Information by Lee McCoy

Rosie Taylor reports:

Christian groups have won a victory in their campaign for shops to sell a religious Easter egg.

Nearly every major supermarket will for the first time this year stock the Real Easter Egg – the only one to mention Jesus on its packaging.

Customers and bishops have lobbied them for three years to stock the £3.99 egg.

They all turned the product away when it was launched in 2010, but Waitrose, Morrisons and the Co-op signed up to trial the eggs in 2011 and 2012.

Now Sainsbury’s and Tesco have joined them – a decision church leaders described as ‘a milestone’.

Asda is the only major chain not to stock the egg, the box of which explains the religious significance of Easter and contains an activity for children.

The Meaningful Chocolate Company expects to sell more than 200,000 of the religious eggs. Around 80 million Easter eggs are sold each year in the UK.

Sainsbury’s and Waitrose will stock just 12 eggs at a small numbers of stores. Tesco is the biggest stockist and will sell the eggs out of 450 of its largest stores.

And what’s the purpose of it all?

The box of the fairtrade chocolate egg explains the religious significance of Easter and contains an activity for children.

David Marshall, from the Meaningful Chocolate Company, said: ‘Our aim is to change the Easter egg market forever by making it more spiritual, more generous and more faithful.’

All profits from the egg will go to the charity.

Let me know if you have actually seen one, or even eaten one (but you can’t admit that before Easter morning…).

[Thanks to Julie for sending me the link on Facebook.]

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times square by joshua davis photography

From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

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They really are tracking you. It’s not just the information that you knowingly put on the internet. It’s also the information that your friends knowingly put there; and all the other embedded information that neither you nor your friends realise is being shared. See this video (sorry about the advert…)

The simplest example, which I had no idea about, is the global positioning info that is automatically uploaded from a digital camera with some photographs. So if you are tagged by someone else on a photo, your time (to the second) at a particular location (to within three metres) is there for everyone to see. Then it just needs the analytics to bring all this data together, and work out what it says about known past behaviour and probable future behaviour. Put this together with your Tesco Club-Card and Amazon buying history and the Google analytics on your recent searches, and they know more about you than you know about yourself.

I’m not exaggerating. When did you ever really reflect on what your movements and searches and purchases say about yourself? Do you even remember what you bought or searched for last month or last year? Well Tesco and Amazon and Google and now apparently Raytheon certainly do.

Ryan Gallagher explains:

A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

A video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare…

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.

In the video obtained by the Guardian, it is explained by Raytheon’s “principal investigator” Brian Urch that photographs users post on social networks sometimes contain latitude and longitude details – automatically embedded by smartphones within “exif header data.”

Riot pulls out this information, showing not only the photographs posted onto social networks by individuals, but also the location at which the photographs were taken…

Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.

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When there are disagreements about the common good, and clear differences between Christian values and the dominant values within a culture, it’s often suggested that the Church should be more ‘countercultural’, a creative minority that establishes itself as an alternative to the prevailing ethos.

diff

I’m reading Cardinal George’s book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, and in the conclusion to one essay he explains why he is wary of this kind of approach. I’ll just quote the paragraph in question.

I mentioned earlier, I am not easy with the term ‘countercultural’, because it sometimes connotes self-hatred. There is truth to the claim that the Catholic believer must sometimes stand boldly apart from his or her culture and speak a word of prophetic critique; but, at its limit, the claim to be countercultural strikes me as incoherent.

Whether we like it or not, we are shaped – linguistically, intellectually, relationally, bodily – by the culture in which we live. To stand completely outside of our culture is, impossibly, to stand outside of ourselves. More to the point, the language of counterculturalism can give rise to an attitude both mean-spirited and condescending. A culture is transformed only by those who love it, just as individuals are converted only by evangelizers who love them. [p58]

If you are moved to take a more strident approach to criticising the culture (and how much we need to sometimes!) it’s worth bearing these words in mind. Remember, he’s not saying that we should never offer a ‘prophetic critique’, he’s just pointing out some of the possibly unhealthy assumptions built into the language of counterculturalism. This huge, sprawling, indefinable ‘Britishness [Englishness?!] in the early 21st century’, for example, is my culture, with all its strengths and weaknesses; and I need to recognise it as mine, and love it, even if I am also wishing to evangelise and transform it. The one thing I can’t do, if I stay here, is opt out. There is no bubble.

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What did we do before the iPad? (By ‘we’ I mean ‘you’, because I’m the dinosaur stuck with the lap-top). The answer: We played all day on the Etch A Sketch.

"Say Anything" on an Etch-A-Sketch by methodshop.com

Hours and hours of my young life wasted/gained/lost/liberated: on the sofa, in bed, in the back of the car.

It has everything the iPad has: text (writing ‘STEPHEN’ in large, uneven letters across the screen); images (all those pictures of stick-men, houses, battle-fields, random animals and geometric patterns); video (the pictures morphed and developed in the making); audio (the faint screech of the wires, the white noise of shaking the filings back into place, using the screen as an improvised drum). It even had wifi: the fact that if your little brother was just finishing his Etch A Sketch masterpiece on the other side of the living room you could use a carefully thrown basketball to edit or delete the image at will; no troublesome wires, no worry about incompatible sockets.

And perhaps all of my present obsessive-compulsive tendencies stem from my discovery that if you systematically rubbed out every millimetre of the screen by bringing the horizontal line back and forward and edging it down incrementally, you uncovered the inner reality of the mechanism: the wires, the pulleys, the metal filings piled up below. This took about half an hour, and I couldn’t stop until not a single filing remained on the underside of the screen. A first taste of mystery, of engineering, of taking things just a little bit too far…

Why this reverie? I just discovered that André Cassagnes, the Etch A Sketch inventor, died last month at the age of 86. This is from Margalit Fox:

A chance inspiration involving metal particles and the tip of a pencil led Mr. Cassagnes to develop Etch A Sketch in the late 1950s. First marketed in 1960, the toy — with its rectangular gray screen, red frame and two white knobs — quickly became one of the brightest stars in the constellation of midcentury childhood amusements that included Lincoln Logs and the Slinky.

Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester in 1998; in 2003, the Toy Industry Association named it one of the hundred best toys of the 20th century. To date, more than 100 million have been sold.

The toy received renewed attention in March, amid the 2012 presidential campaign, after Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, described his boss’s campaign strategy heading from the primaries into the general election thus:

“Everything changes,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

The quotation, pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike, was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment by the Romney campaign that its candidate had no fixed political ideology.

The complete eradicability of an Etch A Sketch drawing is born of the toy’s simple, abiding technology.

The underside of the screen is coated with a fine aluminum powder. The knobs control a stylus hidden beneath the screen; turning them draws the stylus through the powder, scraping it off in vertical or horizontal lines that appear on the screen as if by magic. (An early French name for the toy was L’Écran Magique, “Magic Screen.”)

To erase the image, the user shakes the toy, recoating the screen with aluminum; tiny plastic beads mixed with the powder keep it from clumping.

That is essentially all there is to an Etch A Sketch, and though the toy now comes in various sizes, shapes and colors, its inner workings have changed little since Mr. Cassagnes first touched a pencil to a powder-coated sheet on an otherwise ordinary day more than five decades ago.

And the discovery itself?

One day in the late ’50s, as was widely reported afterward, Mr. Cassagnes was installing a light-switch plate at the factory. He peeled the translucent protective decal off the new plate, and happened to make some marks on it in pencil. He noticed that the marks became visible on the reverse side of the decal.

In making its faux finishes, the Lincrusta factory also used metallic powders; Mr. Cassagnes’s pencil had raked visible lines through particles of powder, which clung naturally to the decal by means of an electrostatic charge.

Mr. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention, which was introduced in 1959 at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. (Because the toy was patented by Arthur Granjean, an accountant working for one of Mr. Cassagnes’s early investors, Mr. Granjean is sometimes erroneously credited as the inventor of Etch A Sketch.)

After Ohio Art acquired the rights to the toy for $25,000, Mr. Cassagnes worked with the company’s chief engineer, Jerry Burger, to refine its design. Where Mr. Cassagnes’s original had been operated with a joystick, the final version mimicked the look of the reigning household god of the day — the television set. It soon became the company’s flagship product.

In later years, Mr. Cassagnes designed kites; by the 1980s, he was considered France’s foremost maker of competition kites, which can perform elaborate aerial stunts.

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