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After all, what is beauty?
[Looking through old drafts of blog posts I found this one. Not perfect and a bit of a rant but it has some good bits in it.]
When looking at Muslim prayer apps the other day I couldn’t find one which was just data, functionally and simply displayed. All of them to different degrees were lathered with trefoils, embellishments, horseshoe arches and geometrical borders etc., made much worse by a tsunami of harsh colours and graphic effects. I can’t bring myself to reproduce any example here. From one view this doesn’t really matter much when put beside some of the big issues of this time. But it is symptomatic of a malaise which has infested our lives which is how modernity has strangled tradition and which has filtered into the creation and the design of many types of things and made a nonsense of it all and idiots of all of us. It’s become a cut and paste effects culture and I don’t see quite where it will end except into some kind of chaotic soup.
The Arabic speaking world (and elsewhere of course) has allowed itself to be strangled by modernism. Possibly because modernism came late to much of it so their cultures became utterly enamoured of it. Such is my horror of most of what I see emanating from the modern Arab universe, be it architecture or city design, calligraphy or typography, I’m beginning to believe there is a hidden third world Photoshop plug-in called ‘now make it look really ugly’ or ‘dog’s dinner effect’… egregiously laid on gimmicks. But obviously someone somewhere thinks it wonderful unless this is just a case first world cultural snobbery.
We ARE traditional after all, whatever a hardened modernist would say. The modernist’s general motto is ‘tabula rasa’– a ‘clean slate’ and at any price. Stuff history. Our hands, feet and eyes, our very bodies are traditional, inherited ancient and beautiful in form and function, all mysteries of perfection. Life itself is nothing if not traditional. So it is with the intellectual, spiritual and cultural pursuits of a people. Which is why we have writing, language, ideas and so on which we inherit and then evolve into new and beautiful forms to suit the times. It is the atheist arch-evangelist Richard Dawkins (to quote from Cambridge scientist Rupert Sheldrake, in his book The Science Delusion) whose evolutionary theory is akin to someone who has set about grinding a sophisticated computer into dust and then sets about rebuilding it from scratch with no instruction manual. I see a link here between modernism and evolutionary theory.
But is my understanding of beauty subjective? How is my idea of beauty different from yours or is there some absolute criteria? Is there such a thing as objective beauty? An ongoing discussion in all circles but if you do the work that I do, you are dealing with this on a daily if not an hourly basis. To my shame somewhat, I admit to plundering online libraries of antique art or photos and occasionally buying or taking photos to adorn whatever job I am working on. At times I do have to create original artwork where none can be found or commission original calligraphy from an expert in this field. The purpose is to get to something different that communicates and is essentially elegant and pleasing to the eye. Quickly. The ateliers of yesteryear were no different I expect. Just without electricity. If I walk into a Persian carpet shop I know in minutes the carpet I want. My companion will be drawn to and buy a completely different item. All of the rugs are in a general way beautiful but what I like is different from his. So what’s going on?
When art is mixed up with commerce there are always some ethical conflicts at work. Is it art for beauty’s sake or is it just to make a buck? In my case of course it’s both, and in truth sometimes something beautiful can come out of having to deliver something, often in a hurry, to a client. The same could probably be said of a medieval calligrapher or artist doing some project for his Baronial Lord, or even for the King of the realm. Meeting the deadline meant inspiration had to arrive to order, on time as it often does. “Sire, does my heraldic design pleaseth thee?” “No, Sir Gawain, it does not. Do it again by tomorrow otherwise you will die.” So not much has changed.
I’m not sure quite what life would be like if I didn’t have people knocking on my door asking for quotes or requesting work in a hurry. After all I don’t play golf and I don’t drink but it seems this is how many retired men and women eek their life away once they reach 70 and if they’re fortunate and don’t need to work. In fact I’ve never played golf in my life or been to a football match even if I did once drink. Did I miss something? Anyway I love to work.
Everything man made reveals an intention of some sort, his or hers spirit is imbued into it and what we can agree is beautiful has more than likely emanated from a beautiful intention, a beautiful soul, like a beautiful tune plucked out of the ether. God is beauty and He loves beauty. This famous truth we are all familiar with but is what permeates this subject. So when we experience beauty and exclaim ‘Ah, isn’t it beautiful’, we are recognising the traces of this Divine eternal and infinite attributes which were planted with love in the artwork, the building, the poem, the Tadjik rug.
The point is that beauty is recognised, not some commodity that can be guaranteed and strapped on afterwards, like plaster or a photoshop effect. It’s an ineffable moment which you can’t analyse too deeply be it subjective or objective.
Beauty of course is its own advocate and doesn’t need explanation really. It lingers behind many veils like some enchanted woman, only to reveal itself by Divine decree. I could show a piece of authentic original Qur’anic calligraphy from the 13th century to one person who would see nothing but odd shapes and colours, but to another who would gasp at its manifest beauty. Is their any logic to this? Just because something is designed on the proportions of the golden section does not guarantee beauty, but might help it to get there. The same with the proportional arabic calligraphic systems developed by Ibn Muqlah and Ibn al-Bawwab in 10th century Baghdad. Or not. I’m sure something quite ugly could be constructed around the golden section if one tried. Similarly Ibn Muqlah’s proportional system of dots wasn’t a guarantee of ravishing beauty.
I’ve seen the Alhambra Palace in Granada many times and it’s a wonderful and beautiful place, a gift that goes on giving, but how much more beautiful for someone whose never seen it before. I wish there was a prayer ‘Oh Lord don’t let me ever take anything for granted.’ For that is what I (i.e.all of us) do too often, be it people, beauty, wisdom whatever. And I’ve seen the Alhambra too many times. Like a beautiful woman’s face, it’s best to look once and move on. I guess if we could live in the instant, nothing would ever be taken for granted and be eternally beautiful. Like an animal’s lunch. Every time it’s their first ever meal.
So most artists, designers, poets, architects, musicians or craftsmen develop an intuition about beauty which they incorporate into their work. We all know the adage: know the rules, then you can break them. Although there are always rules to all creative arts the more experience you have the more you judge matters intuitively only falling back on the rules and technique to check you got it right when there is some doubt. And that is the path to inspired art and spontaneous beauty. And it saves a lot of time. •
Remarkably one of the earliest men in the Western world to embrace Islam and enter a Sufi order was Swedish, born Ivan Aguéli aka Abdal Hadi. He is famous in Sweden as an artist (featured above) and recently shared an exhibition of impressionist painters in Stockholm with Paul Klée. His combination of art and Sufism is not unique which is why I have also featured in this post the wood art and Arabic calligraphy of a young Swede AbdelKarim Cederberg, now a resident of Andalusia, who has explored Nordic art and scripts and woven them into a kind of authentic fusion with traditionally Arabic design motifs. When I interviewed him for this blog he pointed out the significance of Aguéli and his pioneering life and work.
Ivan was born in 1867 in Sala, Sweden and died in Spain in 1917. There are various accounts of his life available but here is a brief one:
Ivan Aguéli was a Swedish mystic, painter and student of Islam. As a painter he is acknowledged as the grandfather of impressionism, a student of an Émile Bernard, who also happened to be a close friend of Vincent Van Gogh of all people and Paul Gauguin. He was active in anarchist circles in Paris in the 1890s and was apparently responsible for shooting a Spanish matador at a bullfight in Paris, but not fatally, for which he was briefly imprisoned. He avidly supported animal rights and feminism. A pionering 21st century man by all accounts.
Aguéli became the first Westerner to study at the famous Al-Azhar university in Cairo where he studied Islamic philosophy. He had taken the name Abdal Hadi and seems to have become a Sufi mystic, studying under a mentor figure, a Shaykh Muhammad Ilaysh. He is credited with having introduced Rene Guénon to Islam in the Ibn Arabi study group he founded in Cairo.
Aguéli died in 1917, being run down by a train at a railway junction at L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a town in Spain, near Barcelona, a town close to the French border. The circumstances surrounding his death are confusing, and some claim he was pushed. The British believed he was an Ottoman spy. We shall never know. He is buried in Sala, Sweden, his birth place where his remains were interred.
Ivan Aguéli aka
Abdel Hadi pictured left and right (top left back row)
Wikipedia has a longer bio. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Agu%C3%A9li#Egypt
Exactly 100 years later after Abdal Hadi’s death in Spain another Swede has arrived on the Iberian peninsular namely AbdelKarim Cederborg. Explore his work here:
He has blended both traditional Islamic motifs and Nordic designs into a uniquely Scandinavian take on both wood carving, calligraphy and geometry. Some of his work is pictured here.
I have had for some time now an app called Flight Radar 24 which some readers may be familiar with. This isn’t a plug for it, but a little perusal of this app will doubtless surprise you. It did me. In the screen shot above you will see in real time the exact position of every plane (the little yellow things) in the air at the time of the screen grab – in this case North America. And the app covers the whole world. The app collects the flight data every civil aviation plane has to broadcast once it is airborne and even on the ground. If you get up close you can see each plane’s movement and with the correct settings, its flight path as well. Plus all available information about the carrier, the plane type, speed etc. It’s mind boggling to think of this many planes in the air at any given time. 5000-10,000 is one figure mooted and that doesn’t include military flights. And that is at any moment in any day, depending on whether the USA is awake or not. Over Africa there appear to be almost no planes at all which speaks volumes. A simple graphic of the disparity between the excessively rich nations and the excessively poor. Read on, it gets worse.
Yes it’s a beautiful picture but don’t be deceived. I don’t want to be alarmist (or maybe I do) but it’s not really beautiful at all.
During take-off, a jumbo jet can devour 2 million litres (528,344 gallons) of air per second. In the first five minutes of flight, a commercial airliner can burn as much oxygen as 49,000 acres of forest produce in a day. According to Department of Transportation figures, flying a Boeing 747-400 from Washington, DC to San Francisco burns 17,232 gallons of jet fuel. (Fuel efficiency: 6.7 mpg.) A Boeing 747 averages 32 minutes taxiing, taking off and landing. During this time, it can generate 190 pounds of NOx – equal to the amount produced by driving a car 53,500 miles.
Research by NASA proved that in the North American corridor there are major climatic changes taking place, more than anywhere else. One of the world’s most troubled routes, the North Atlantic Flight Corridor (NAFC) lies between 45 and 65 degrees north latitude and runs almost entirely over water. In 1990, between 700 and 800 aircraft traveled this route between the US and Europe each day – amounting to more than 200,000 flights per year. 27 years later, do you think this has declined?
I haven’t had time to sit in front of FlightRadar24 and count them.
Aside from the air pollution aspect of this which is serious considering that even a recently engineered plane spreads a blanket of toxic gases miles wide, the sheer size of what is going on reflects the huge corporate and commercial activity going on at a global scale and which dwarfs the petty political squabbles taking place in the world which we get hypnotized by. So you get an idea of who is really running the show for their own advantage basically. For example, no mention recently of the $15 billion airplane contract with Iran being cancelled by Trump who pre-election vowed to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran. They know too darn well that if they did, the order would go directly to Europe or even China. The White House is often called the east coast office of Monsanto for good reason. The Americans, having elected their lower self to the Presidency now have a rather unpredictable and potentially dangerous person running the show and they are having to live with it. Much of this information here is probably known to you all, and is all available on-line but I thought the app mentioned above might give you a tangible perception of what I have been discussing and why it’s worth a quick look. The global media drama serves to distract you from what is really going on.
So much is hidden from us and maybe just as well as I think the big picture might just be too much to take. About ten years ago I was traveling over the Oakland bridge in the Bay Area of San Francisco with friends just before sunset and suddenly we saw the enormous awesome plume of a space rocket moving silently and slowly into the upper atmosphere emitting a strange light. Up and up and up it went till with a big blast it vanished. I found out later it was a Star Wars test over the pacific from Vandenburg Airforce Base (the picture above is of a recent test by the US military of an unarmed nuclear missile from Vandenburg). What we witnessed was a $100m firework display by the American military – all over in a few seconds. On the west coast of America you get some idea of the vast and secretive world of the American military industrial complex that is given all it wants from the Federal purse, – whenever it is wanted. It is said that when the US is at war there is full employment on the West coast. In computer software and weapons research, the Federally funded Lawrence Livermore labs just inland from the Bay Area, is where even now research is being made into neutron bomb warfare amongst much else of strategic interest to the US.
Don’t lose sleep over it as you can’t do much about it.
I wrote this in late January after some outrage in the US by a white supremacist but sadly it applies now and probably for the foreseeable.
I would rather be writing on a more creative theme but current events seem to have interposed themselves unfortunately. I was sent the following article today by a friend which coming from a US Catholic professor I thought an excellent if alarming analysis of the state of play.
In September 1962 I was playing football on an Essex sports field when enormous USAF B52s began screaming overhead above the grey wintery clouds. We shuddered. This was the height of the Cold War and on that day the high point of the Cuban missile crisis. The referee, who was our music master in fact, a rather nervous soul, went white as a sheet and went inside the school buildings and left us playing on.
Well I’m still here over 50 years later to tell the tale. Today, 1 February 2017 we are entering another rather perilous stage in our shared history but maybe there are some lessons to learn from my first teenage protest experience.
A year before the Cuban missile crisis I had been on an anti-war CND march from Wethersfield USAF base in Essex to Trafalgar Square in central London (photo above). One would have thought 100,000 people would make some kind of difference but actually it changed nothing – outwardly at least. But it did change me as I am sure it changed others. I was suddenly made aware of the outside world, grubby, wet, shouting and political. But it also highlighted new realities to do with civil rights in the USA and a whole new horizon of humanity in the world we were in at that time but ignorant of. We had been all shut up in our towns, our schools, our families, our country, pretty unaware of what was going on in the outside world. It was challenging to figure out where I fitted in that new world and who I really was. That world was suddenly a slightly frightening place but full of new and fascinating things nonetheless. Much transpired from that four day marching experience, sleeping rough with little or no money and being amongst the rain sodden anoraks, ordinary folks, the left wing politicos et alia. It was all full of portents.
Pretty much like the million man/woman march in 2003 (above) when central London was flooded to overflowing with the incredible sight of an ocean of people protesting the imminent invasion of Iraq chanting and singing …”War, what is it good for..absolutely nothing“. I walked on that protest march as well and was dismayed that it made absolutely no difference at all. It seemed that political realities and the fate of thousands of souls was all going to happen regardless of our protestations and on the meretricious whim of a power drunk egotist. We were just the escape valve. The faceless war mongers and their military machine would do whatever they wanted even if it meant lying about it. The dismay was accentuated because many of those marching had voted for Blair a few years earlier. The sweeping realities of war seem to happen in spite of humanity’s hatred of it. Man proposes but God disposes.
Individually of course the effect of the dramatic events of history are posing us all with a question. Much as we might be affected by the big news and the actors in the drama with our hopes vainly pinned on outcomes, we have in fact absolutely no influence over them other than a well directed prayer. The question each person is being asked is …..’Who are you and what to you choose to be?’ …..that is, forever, for all eternity. Each human soul is taxed with this test at any given moment but particularly in times of oppression or war. Are you going to be generous to the refugee, or even to your next door neighbour, or harden your heart and repeat to yourself the corrupting slogans and mantras of the arch-inciters who infest the newspapers, TV channels and web sites. Or at best do nothing.
For surely as night follows day, whatever is in your heart is what you will take with you, should death come upon you. Which is why so many people who cherish and nurture hatred in their hearts are in such a perilous position but are unaware of it. And if they don’t believe that then they will find out soon enough. Maybe they just lack imagination.
(This was not much to do with typography but I thought it would be of interest.)
My Ramadan afternoons, when the blood sugar reaches low levels, have been spent watching some of the lectures by Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) on YouTube given in his college’s annual retreat last year. I can strongly recommend his lecture on Riding the Tiger of Modernity, something which we are all trying to do in this strange period of history.
Ottoman Music Therapy. Pictured possibly in the Erdine Therapy Clinic illustrated below.
But today I just watched his talk on Music in Islam which is a subject close to my heart about which I’ve already blogged a few times in recent years. His lecture is worth watching as he explores some of the finer points and secrets of the Islamic musical traditions from the medical benefits of music therapy to the some of the different legal positions scholars have made over the past 1400 years. To those unfamiliar with this particular discussion it is because over past centuries every single aspect of the human situation has been filtered through the minds of Muslim scholars endeavoring to apply their knowledge and wisdom of the Qur’an and the Sunna to guide people aright in their lives. The use of instrumental and sung music being one of them. Abdal Hakim also outlined some of the technical details of the maqamats, harmonic frameworks which could be described as the empirical auditory harmonies of this created universe. Man’s knowledge of them predates Islam and is most likely what the Pythagoreans called the music of the spheres. My understanding of them is likened to the example of the western concept of major and minor, the listener comprehending happiness and sadness respectively. But there are many more maqams than major and minor and which can also involuntarily affect and inspire the listener.
This is a vast subject and Abdal Hakim was obviously not going to cover all the ground available. The broad range of scholastic opinions on this subject is proof of how vast the subject is and why the differences of opinion is a mercy, as people can legitimately fit in wherever they wish. It’s not black and white. Unlike matters of law, music is a qualitative thing, fundamentally about the emotions of sound and how it affects the heart. What people do with it is another matter. Applying law to what is essentially art is tricky ground and given the limited practical knowledge and experience most people have of music, any strong legal statement against music by a scholar is going to very likely shut some people’s ears to something of beauty in God’s creation for fear they may be doing wrong.
As I understand it, the four schools of law generally rule against instrumental music and I’m pretty sure the reasons for that are based on the premise that it is better to avoid doubtful things though I would need confirmation of that. I’m well aware that there is ugly music as well as beautiful music and in these times just too much music altogether so if you do music then you have to do it with care, beauty, discrimination and a good intention. But how often I have heard of people denied musical education for legal sharia reasons who end up listening to the worst kinds of music or worse still have no music in their lives at all apart from their phone ringtone. I’ve seen how it diminishes people. You cannot just say no, if there is nothing else to fall back on. But the important subject of music education, which you won’t see in any Muslim curriculum, is for another day. To me music is like a language and there are many such languages and if you wish to speak something profound to people you have to speak their language and not be looking over your shoulder all the time wondering if someone is going to catch you out on some legal point. Everyone these days is bombarded with these myriad musical languages (or genres if you like), unaware of their effects as they don’t know the language and their often malign meanings. Another reason to educate not legislate.
Music Therapy in action in a Turkish hospital.
The prophetic traditions invoked to forbid instrumental music (the Qur’an doesn’t specifically mention it) generally linked it to lewdness and alcohol and these are well known and always trawled out in this debate. But one scholar I know pointed out that the use of profanity does not invalidate language so why should the use of a stringed instrument in a dubious situation invalidate musical instruments when the same instrument could be used to spiritually inspire and beautify? A good point. I want to suggest a different approach. Are we not to be judged by our intentions, if God judges us thus? Not using instruments in a spiritual gathering is no guarantee of it’s worth if it is done with bad intentions. There could be much good in a whole orchestra of instruments if the intention was to uplift the spirit and to better humanity or to heal sickness. Are we to deny the value of music therapy, which is exactly that?
The Music Therapy Chamber, Erdine, Turkey. Now a museum.
In earlier posts on this blog I’ve inveighed against vacuous mindless music, and how in these times it’s linked to money, advertising, drugs and alcohol and worse. I know how the music business works. But there is an artistic component to this debate. How do we define beautiful music when so much of the appreciation of music is subjective? The technological noise that surrounds modern man is a terrible intrusion on his birthright to a bit of peace and tranquility. It’s noise without art. Like the noise of war. All the environmental noise of this age, inside and outside our houses, is seriously desensitizing us which is why I value silence most of all these days. I’ve said it before on this blog.
Tunes and musical ideas all have history and if some pedants query the use of maqams as being from a time prior to Islam (which they do), then stop to consider that much of culture and language has passed down from disbelieving but extinct civilisations. A real spiritual culture takes what has been inherited and refines it. The same with music. All of life is grafted on to the tree of our ancestry. Even the Celtic maqams beloved of Abdal Hakim are likely to have some alcoholic origins but that doesn’t mean when they are used in Qur’anic tajweed they aren’t beautiful, for they are. In Abdal Hakim’s CD the Rawdhat as-Shuhudat, Ali Keeler breaks new ground with his Qur’an recitation in Celtic modes. It’s the one thing I most appreciate on that album. We have left Damascus and are nearer home, now safely in a Scottish glen. •
Whilst doing the washing up after supper last night it dawned on me that the fish slice I had just used to flip my egg-in-the nest was the actual fish slice my mother was using in the 1950s when I was a teenager. In perfect working order after a lifetime of flipping pancakes and eggs. A Prestige Skyline. And a fine fish slice it is, better than any others I have had the pleasure to use. I must have inherited it in 1990 when my mother passed away but I had totally taken it for granted until I realised what I was using daily was an actual antique. It’s still in use because it is incredibly well made. I have had others which have usually snapped or bent irreversibly. Apart from some of my old books, little else has survived the test of time of possessions that get to be used regularly in our house. I do have a hammer I was given to me by American GIs who lived next door during the 1950s when East Anglia was awash with servicemen from the USA and who gave us everything when they left. But that’s about it. And I do use it.
But it did occur to me that blogs, like this one, will outlive me. I think. Unlike bank accounts and I suspect Facebook accounts, which close with the demise of its owner, I imagine blogs will carry on into perpetuity. At least I hope so. As long as the internet remains. The manipulations of fashion are mostly what drives people to update whatever it is that they want but as the quality of things increases surely owners of cars, computers whatever, will be less inclined to purchase the latest version as the current model works fine thank you very much. But computers is one arena which alas compels one to catch up all the time. Computers are like standing on an escalator. You go where it goes and when it goes. Everyone knows how persistent computer manufacturers are to get you to upgrade your operating system even though, for instance, my last iPhone upgrade slowed my old iPhone 5 down to a crawl. It’s since caught up in speed but I am wary now of hitting the upgrade option when it pops up. I’m trying step off the update treadmill but it requires determination and cool thinking but I still feel I am a like a Luddite for choosing not to.
I have never ever bought a new car and still believe rightly so that the older cars, if you get the right one, are vastly better than newer cars which are overly computerised and are less serviceable by your local garage. I know of cars which have just died because the computer seized up. It just calls into question the notion of endless new car models and planned obsolescence which was an idea that began in the 1920s in the USA when car sales reached saturation point and getting people to change cars even if they didn’t need to, became a priority. So cars could suddenly be had in a range of colours and sizes and then marketed like mad by the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. You’ll find some people still who have kept the same vacuum cleaners and fridges since the war and have no reason to change. Cars too.
Human beings have a limited lifetime and although there is a small wealthy percentage who advocate cryonic preservation most of us will pass away and quite thankfully leave this world behind. But occasionally the dead don’t disintegrate once dead, and here in Spain they are called the Incorruptibles.
This link is to the story of a Lebanese Christian saint (St. Charbel Makhlouf) who died in 1898. These incorruptible (as opposed to artificially preserved) men or women are often saintly souls and in Catholicism are revered as Saints or Blesseds. There are many accounts of incorruptibles (in all religious faiths) but of course only when a grave is opened does this come to light. Often what attracts people to the tombs of saints is a luminous living presence, something which I’ve often experienced in the Muslim world at tombs of the dead. Although I did find the tomb of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral very affecting when I visited it in the 1960s.
St. Charbel Makhlouf (above)
Of course in the northern Anglo Saxon Christian tradition visiting tombs of saints or even the graves of relatives is not common and likewise in the more puritan parts of the Muslim world. In the Catholic world All Souls (Halloween) was always the day you visited your dead relatives placing flowers on the graves or nowadays by their bricked up niches. Only recently was the idea of Halloween imported into Spain as a commercial money spinner. Before it had always been the day every Spanish family took flowers to the cemetery. Now it’s like America with pumpkins and ghoulish masks. But All Saints day is different from All Souls’ Day which is set aside for prayers for all souls, whether in heaven or purgatory. All Saints is supposed to celebrate the souls of saints who are in heaven because of their dedication to prayer and devotional living.
The recent BBC series Father Brown, a TV adaptation of the original novels by GK Chesterton throws up some interesting issues around this subject. Apart from being simply a whodunnit, the series is also a lot about Catholicism but I’m sure it’s mostly watched and enjoyed by religious believers of all stripes as well as agnostics and atheists. But what overrides the religious issues is that it is all about God, whether you agree or not that God exists. Father Brown, the eccentric sleuth, is sympathetically played by Mark Williams, who, when he exposes the murderer, first councils him or her to confess and is usually merciful in his judgment of people. He always puts God first and the law last so ends up in some awkward situations. To non-Catholics the idea of confession seems absurd as to believe a priest can absolve you of sins just doesn’t add up but I must admit the more I see Mark Williams in action the more it makes sense for certain troubled people to unburden themselves to another person in the confessional booth. Especially before dying. After all psychiatrists and councillors perform the same function but charge for the service. The only oddity about the programme is that it is hard believe that anywhere in the Cotswolds is there a village with so many Catholics.
One question I would love to ask Mark Williams if ever I met him is whether acting the priest hasn’t made him into one or whether he couldn’t just change jobs to be one, if his Harry Potter work ran out. We are all knowingly or unknowingly very concerned with our impermanence and whether one aspect of ourselves is in fact most definitely permanent. After all eternity is by definition a permanent condition. ♣
Picture Courtesy of Peter Sanders.
Martin Stone passed away at 2am on the 8th November 2016 in Paris where he lived. Before joining the seminal rock group Mighty Baby in 1968 he had ventured into the world of the occult, after having begun more prosaically playing in blues bands in south London. I have many stories to relate about him although for thirty years I had no contact at all. Others have many more stories I’m sure. Read on.
After Brian Jones was sacked, the Rolling Stones considered Martin as a replacement and somehow the news leaked and the press descended on his parents house in Sandersted, South London, where they all lived. His mother was shocked. Martin had known Brian and had played informally with him previously. In the London music scene if you were vaguely talented you were known about as it was a small world, and certainly much smaller than it is now. He told me he once had to back Rufus Thomas, a black blues legend, back in the 1960s on a UK tour. He thought of inviting his parents who came to see him in a dance hall in South London. Much to his embarrassment Thomas came out with obscene jokes in between his songs. That’s what the music business could be like and probably still is.
Martin’s occult interests were not unconnected to his love of psychotropic drugs but led him book by book to works by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, the Upanishads, Buddhism, the I Ching etc. and so on all the way to books on Celtic Christianity, geomancy, and finally Rumi and Sufism. Watkins bookshop in Cecil Court, and Probsteins in Museum Street in London’s west end were some of his favourite haunts at the time as they were for Richard Thompson and later Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Books for him contained all the secrets he longed for. When I first met him at his audition he had a guitar case in one hand and a large book of oriental wisdom in the other.
He first connected with Ian Dallas (aka Abdal Qadir), a Scottish one time actor and writer, at a time when Dallas was given a guest editorship of the International Times, an anarchic rag, published in the late 1960s in swinging London. He interviewed Martin and Roger, the Mighty Baby drummer, for the paper, and this led to another meeting with just Martin in the old Cranks vegetarian restaurant just behind Oxford street. Soon after that Martin was invited to Dallas’ cottage in Devon. This led to a secret trip with Ian Dallas to Morocco in late 1970 and no one in Mighty Baby knew anything about it! In Meknes, Martin was introduced to the famous, venerable and saintly teacher Muhammad Ibn Al Habib with whom he accepted Islam and was given the name Abdal Malik. This fits with a vivid memory I have of a tour in Germany where I first encountered Martin praying, although I didn’t know at the time it was prayer. I thought he was looking under his bed in the hotel. On the same journey Martin’s two heavy Yusuf Ali Qur’ans fell on my head in an incident on an autobahn in Germany on the way back to England.
Incidentally, on our first trip to Morocco in 1971, I found myself in a small room in the old Zawiyya in Meknes with the late poet Abdal Hayy Moore (who I wrote about recently and who died earlier this year) when Muhammad Ibn al Habib, may God be pleased with him, then around 100, came into the room and sat with Abdal Hayy for about 15 minutes with his hand on his forehead to assuage his high fever. Martin and I were both stunned into silence as if a large ship had steamed into a tiny harbour. Now they are all together in the afterworld ….
Martin also remembered better than me the encounter Mighty Baby had with Mick Jagger in our dressing room at a Drury Lane gig in 1968 with the Rolling Stones. Apparently I had some harsh words for Jagger but I have no memory of it at all. I think we all thought that, rightly or wrongly, we were the counterbalance to their demonic presence.
After he parted with the nascent Sufi community early in 1972 due to a terminal clash of personalities with its leader Ian Dallas/Abdal Qadir, Martin toyed with other music groups but became best known as a book scout, tracking down rare books for high paying clients. He was featured in various novels….. in one book A Pound Of Paper by John Baxter I was erroneously blamed for having ended Mighty Baby by embarking on the spiritual journey we had all embarked on. Without any shadow of a doubt, Martin was the one, to his credit, who took us all into it.
Martin, aka Abdal Malik, passed away after a long battle with a rare kind of cancer. I last spoke with him a few months ago and he was as ever, cheerful. We even discussed doing some recording down here in Spain. After being disconnected for so long, we began corresponding with each other up to the time of his death. He was fascinated with what had happened after he departed the Sufis in 1972 and I filled in the history for him. Although he had reversed out of practical Islam, I know he still had respect for those with sincere spiritual intent. He always addressed me as Abdallateef not Ian, not that it mattered to me. But it mattered to him. Whatever happened between him and Abdal Qadir/Ian Dallas was so traumatic that it drove him away. His loss? Most probably. Our loss? Definitely.
Below is a recording I made in memory of him which is revisiting an old Mighty Baby track from the ultimate album. Martin wrote the lyrics though the band always shared writing credits equally. Feel free to distribute it. Somehow it captures the bitter sweet nature of the time it was written.