Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Tumble in the Hay with Lord Krishna

AS YOU CAN SEE, this is a picture of Krishna and Radha, a most exotic couple. In 2006, I bought some colourful postcards in a gift shop at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hare Krishna Temple in Hertfordshire. These certainly are extravagantly dressed gods. I have not only been in this temple of Lord Krishna, but in a Mormon temple. I can tell you truthfully that the Mormons’ attire is a damn sight more peculiar, and not nearly so attractive.

The gods, Krishna and his partner Radha, use rather a lot of makeup. I like the clothing best. I am too old now—and too short and fat—to wear anything fancier than corduroy trousers and a Harris Tweed jacket, and the odd Liberty of London tie if I must. That said, in the late 1960s I fancied being more colourful than the few flower-patterned shirts I could afford to buy in Carnaby Street or on the King’s Road in Chelsea. For good or evil, I could not save up enough to buy myself raw silk jackets, in bright colours, that fastened with golden frogs. White trousers with huge belts and buckles. Pale blue shoes. I once prayed for a fur coat having seen they were “in” with the Beautiful People. “A fur, just like you wear, dear God.” In 1967, the “Summer of Love”, I had a vision of myself that I cannot now revisit comfortably. As all those who take a look back more than twenty years say: “What was I thinking?”

Visiting London for a week in 2006, in the hottest weather on the books, was perfect for trekking around the city on foot, and to go out by car looking for the countryside. It is there somewhere, if you can just get past the new housing estates and old neighbourhoods. I saw a sign that read: “Suburbs next 50 Miles.” No, of course not.

So, onto the highways and byways of old England. My friends, Nalini and Shekhar, had asked me if I wanted to pop in and “See the God Revealed” as the traffic had been so congested that we could not travel far and hope to be back in Wembley Park before dark, even with the long twilight. We had been wandering around the ring roads of north and west London looking for touristy places. I had no idea what I might be getting myself into. God revealed. Might this be like the film shown in a Mormon temple during the secret endowment ceremony, featuring gods and prophets and men and at least one snake-like devil?

We arrived at two large gateposts, with plaques reading “Bhaktivedanta Manor” and “Hare Krishna Temple”. Inside the gates, past neatly clipped hedgerows, finely boxed hedges, greenhouses, and brilliant flowerbeds, was an enormous Tudor manor house, white with black beams, at least three storeys, outbuildings, and with leaded windows big enough for a church, some with stained glass. God’s summer cottage, perhaps? He might kick off the shoes and stretch out on the lawn, sipping a cold beverage. What would God drink? Nectar? Mead? The first and last of the wine of Cana? We parked with many dozens of cars in a designated field. It would be muddy in the rain, but was brick hard in the summer of 2006.

“You’ve been in a Mormon temple,” I told myself again. “It just cannot be weirder than that.” Following the crowd, I too took off my sandals, putting them at the edge of the many outside the main door, wondering aloud: “If I find a nicer pair of shoes when I come out, can I trade up?” My joke was not appreciated. Too Church of England, perhaps.

The late George Harrison of the Beatles had presented the Manor to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness movement back in 1973. In June 2006, I wandered about the Temple, with lots of other pilgrims, they turned out to be worshippers, waiting for the God to turn up. I was one of very few whites in the building that afternoon; half a dozen others were dressed in the saffron dhotis we have all seen in airports. I tried to sense George there. He wrote and sang: “All I have is yours, all you see is mine.” This was quite a donation, quite a gift.

Most of the adult visitors were people my age or older, of Indian heritage, and beautifully and modestly dressed with sudden touches of colour. With them, grandchildren perhaps: Youngsters so unlike ours. These neatly dressed little ones walked slowly, did not call out or poke at things, and must have had some appreciation for the more sacred things in the Temple. No golden frogs on the visitors. Would the God have them when he was unveiled?

It was to be at four-fifteen. On time!

All the doors, throughout the house, on three floors, were closed. What you needed to do—were encouraged to do—was to open them as you reached them. A gentle push sufficed. You pulled the doors to as you passed through, and all closed gently, quietly, none locking. I examined a huge bathtub. It was very nearly the size of the baptismal fonts in the basements of Mormon temples.

I was given two small dishes of rice when I returned to the ground floor. One was plain, the other spiced with ginger root. No knives, forks or spoons. Paper towels. I was a bit peckish.

As four o’clock approached, I joined Nalini, Shekhar, and many others in a large hall that had no furniture. One end of the hall had a closed curtain from side to side and ceiling to floor. At the other end of the room sat a life-size—I thought it was a live person at first—figure. Nalini told me he was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. That is a fine name. He had founded the Krishna Consciousness Movement. The statue was surrounded with flowers and clothed almost as oddly as I had wanted to be back in the 1960s. People—except for me—kneeled and bowed to the statue, some lay flat, face down, on the floor in front of it. I also saw adults prostrating themselves on the floor at the feet of young children. Perhaps, in sympathy, to remind the children that nothing ages quite like youth: “You could be our age in the blink of Krishna’s eye.”

All the people—adults and children—moved slowly. People smiled and nodded, but did not reach for your elbow to hurry you along to where they thought you should be. There was no running about. Even with four-fifteen closing in.

Nothing seemed too weird in the moment. Even the chanting was pleasing to a degree. In the room with us—I include the Swami—there were a couple of white men in one corner, wearing the robes you see Krishna people wearing in Airports. One man thumped a drum and the other worked a squeezebox. Here, in this Temple, these priests were quite unattractive. They are creepy in airports too, I think. What is that all about? I believe it is because I find their pallid, shaved heads and doughy bodies repulsive, rather than their Consciousness. Tanned and brown-skinned monks in saffron dhotis are wonderfully attractive. These acolytes in Watford would look so much better with a Mystic Tan. In addition, I thought wickedly, after a hearty meal at a Mongolian Barbecue. Clearly, I had much to learn.

Then, my hosts’ bowing over, we joined dozens of others sat on individual sized flat mats, on the floor facing—curiously—the closed curtain, and they chanted. As people lowered themselves, they picked up the Mantra.

There I was, sat on a mat in a dimly lit hall with about fifty people singing “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Krishna Krishna”. To think I was—for over thirty years—severely limited by panic disorder. And then we watched the God unveiled at 4.15pm. Why 4.15pm? Two more shaved, robed men opened the curtains after a little bell rang somewhere. Is my mobile phone switched off? The Divine One had been behind the curtains all along: Or was he wheeled in from the wings? Actually, this Krishna was a sort of conjoined entity: They were very attractive if you like that sort of thing. They were life-sized, unlike Christian Gods, and very colourful, and draped beautifully with flowers as they sat at their altar.

This splendid altar held candles, incense, flowers, dishes of food, and drink placed before and around Krishna and his partner. Offerings over, there followed a thorough scrubbing of the floor within the holy place and then a careful dusting and polishing of the images. I wondered why the God’s place was so carefully cleansed after receiving gifts from his people. Do the gifts of men come polluted? I will write 250 words on that the next time I stay after school.

Chanting! Chanting! I am thinking of the line in “Absolutely Fabulous” when Edina tells her concerned Guru over the telephone: “I’m chanting as we speak.” Before the ceremony wrapped up, a large, wooden chest—that just did not fit in with the general decor—was placed where Krishna’s floor became ours. People went—on their knees and backsides—to the chest and slipped money into the slot in it. Mostly coins. Krishna would prefer the rustle of five and ten pound notes, I am certain; the Church of England does. However, clinking coins sounded good at a ceremony that was orchestrated with bells and other plucked or thumped instruments. Another draped man—they seemed to be getting paler the nearer they were to Krishna—waved a very large feather, perhaps that of an ostrich, to encourage the burning incense. To get the scented smoke up Krishna’s and Radha’s noses. Hare! Hare!

Quite suddenly, a bell rang somewhere off-stage, reminding Krishna—I suppose—that he had another appointment. Therefore, abruptly, the curtains were closed. Getting to my feet was not easy, the mat slipping about, and then fine dust on the floor, and only the flat wall to claw at. I ached all over.

Having withheld my coins and five-pound notes from the temptation of the ugly wooden chest, I headed outside, and noted my own sandals were the nicest in the heap, so I put them on again. I was thus able to afford some postcards and a string of love beads and a mango milk shake at the “Hare Krishna Temple Store and Café.” I bought sodas and biscuits for Nalini and Shekhar. I am wearing the beads today, so many years later. I cannot figure out how to release the clasp. A bit like some branches of Christianity.

Leaving the Café, we walked through greenhouses and past aboveground pools with water lilies in them, and little golden fish chasing bubbles and sparks. You could reach out to a lotus blossom without falling over and into a ground level pond. We could see the parked cars in the distance, but went through wooden gates towards the posted “Temple Farm”. Enormous cattle, water buffalo, gave us the eye from a field very nearly crowded with enormous multi-coloured wagons. Nalini explained—poor thing had been explaining before we ever left Wembley Park—that at times the oxen would be hitched to the wagons, which were then considered “chariots” and the teams raced about. I recalled the charioteers in “Ben-Hur” and laughed somewhere behind my Foster Grants. I could not imagine it here, and they had no postcard showing bus-size wagons drawn by burly bulls. How fast could that be? Do they smack their oxen to hurry them along?

A very large building had a sign reading “Temple Barn”, and as we walked in, we were asked to wash our hands. That is not a bad idea; for over an hour I had been pushing myself about on my mat on the floor of Krishna’s audience room, trying to get my folded legs under me bearable, and some feeling back in my lower body. I was dusty.

There were no cows in the barn after all that. It was milking time in another building, somewhere sterilised. This barn looked as pristine a place one might have. We found a ramp that went up to an elevated platform, higher than the barn floor, about six feet. Up I went. Outside a gate on the platform was a shining steel bin filled with exquisite, fresh, unblemished fruit and vegetables. Behind a stall door, lying on fresh hay, were two calves: Quite young and almost golden, coats brushed clean, no flies, no bits of straw, eyes enormous and brown almost as if they were wearing make-up. No manure in the stall, and only a sweet fragrance. A picture of total serenity. One calf was called Krishna, a common name at the Manor, and I cannot be sure the other was Radha. Their mothers must have been in the milking shed.

I crouched on my aching legs to reach in and touch the calf nearest me, who might have been Krishna, or the other one. I did not recall ever having touched a live cow. This one did not look as if it would bite me. I gave the creature’s ear a nice massage and did the same routine that works for dogs, cats, swans, budgies, lions and tigers, and everything else, including Lotus Europa sports cars. Singing:

Hello Baby! Hello Baby!
I would like to stroke your muzzle!
Come on Baby! Come on Baby!
You are such a beautiful Baby!

Someone below called out: “Would you like some very fresh ice-cream?” Of course, I would, as a chaser after the mango milkshake. I pushed down on my legs and made to stand up. That did not happen: I felt dizzy—I do that often with my dodgy blood pressure—and went sailing off into space.

My knapsack came up behind my head and upper back when I reached the concrete floor below the platform, protecting my head from a direct blow. Some loose, clean hay softened the fall of the rest of me. The barn was so immaculate, that not even a straw was out of place and in need of refreshment. Does Krishna actually keep a lookout for his followers and visitors? If he does: “Thank you, Sir.”

We then had the very fresh ice cream, again mango flavoured. I was but a little shaken by my fall. As I hit the ground, I had thought: “This will make a good story.”

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Waves

He, doing so, put forth to seas,
Where when men been, there's seldom ease;
For now the wind begins to blow;
Thunder above and deeps below
Make such unquiet, that the ship
Should house him safe is wreck'd and split;
And he, good prince, having all lost,
By waves from coast to coast is tost.
William Shakespeare (Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Act I, Scene IV)

AT WARWICK ACADEMY, from time to time, the recess or lunch break on the playing fields would be interrupted by loud shouts of “Fight! Fight!” and suddenly a knot of boys would form here or there, encircling something unseen but understood. One boy would have taken umbrage at something another lad had said or done, and would launch an attack of fists and feet. Sticks, stones or knives simply did not enter into it.

The spectators would continue to call out their encouragement until one (or both) of the boys was bloodied; and then the knot would unravel rapidly, the gladiatorial ended, and runny noses, split lips and blackened eyes would be dabbed at in the toilets.

I do not recall teachers, or even prefects, ever breaking up a fight.

I might add that I do not remember ever seeing girls fighting, except by way of words and distant gestures. The girls were as adept with a rude finger or two as their older brothers were.

There was not a great deal of bullying at Warwick Academy, bigger boys lording it over younger or smaller pupils. That said, in my day, some of our young tin Caesars felt it necessary to dictate hairstyles and the length of one’s hair. As this demand for short hair was the same as that dictated by the Headmaster, I never saw people punished for ganging up on boys with hair a little over the ears or collars. Our Headmaster could never be accused of being fair.

Only once was I threatened with a haircut by my classmates, and that was at a party one weekend night. I simply slipped out of the host’s door and walked a few miles home in the dark. I can still remember the walk home, 45 years later. Slipping out of the house, slipping along the roads, and taking a longer route than I need have done so that if anyone came after me they would expect me elsewhere, slipping into my home after midnight and never telling my mother I had walked home. One or two friends at the party did worry when I had vanished, knowing I had no transport and four or five miles to get home.

The Headmaster bullied me over my “long” hair. Many the times I was called up in morning Assembly, and told to report to the Headmaster after our little services were done. In his office, I would be shrieked at by a man twice my size, who would go so red in his rage that one expected something to pop. I can tell you he lived into his nineties, possibly because when he retired from his position at Warwick Academy he grew his hair longer than mine had ever been.

Last night, very late, I watched rioters, looters, and arsonists attempting to level part of London, starting in Tottenham’s High Road. Apparently, a small protest over the shooting death of a bloke two nights earlier got “out of hand”. It appeared more likely that a peaceful protest was hijacked by mini-gangsters who wanted to rumble. Soon I was watching people fleeing, while a few males pitched rocks and petrol bombs at vehicles and buildings, and there was a live view of the arsonists’ younger brothers wheeling shopping trolleys loaded with electronic goods from shattered storefronts.

A reporter from the BBC seemed to have taken a position in the centre of a street, with fires raging in the buildings behind him, and rock-throwing youths battling mounted police nearby. Two teenagers, in jeans and T-shirts, came up behind the reporter. First, Yellow Shirt gave the viewing audience a bit of a dance and hand gestures that were offensive even to someone as out of it as I am. Punching fists, rude fingers, and thrusts. Then Blue Shirt jumped in from the dark and shoved Yellow Shirt, who stumbled about.

I was waiting to hear “Fight! Fight!” However, the shirts decided to play for the cameras, smiling widely and looking anything but tough. The BBC reporter did not seem to know what was going on two feet behind him, or was simply not going to be bothered by it. The camera operator narrowed the shot so that only the reporter’s face and some flames behind his left ear filled the screen. The boys were out of the shot. That is when the reporter got the push and other rioters and yobs went for the camera and the BBC van. The presenter back in the studio told us that there appeared to be some confrontation between their team in Tottenham and protestors. "And here are some earlier pictures ..."

Today, it is all smouldering buildings, streets covered in rubbish and ash, and police walking about looking for “evidence”. Walls of now-roofless Victorian buildings are tottering in Tottenham. The locals are homeless and some even have no clothing but that they wore to flee the fires in the night. Somewhere, one supposes, boys and their slightly bigger brothers are setting up splendid stereo systems and HD television sets. How do young kids explain the new 42” telly with a surround-sound feature in the front room to their parents? Do they even have parents, or people who parent them?

From what I can gather watching the Beeb, at first only about 15 police officers were on duty when the protest started. One of the Police bigwigs tells us they misjudged the size of the crowd and the emotions of those taking part. Several riots this summer have also been poorly anticipated. Our Government is busy reducing the police services, and our military, despite protest marches and gatherings and the heartfelt anger that the population seems always to feel during Tory administrations.

Right now, our Government is off on holiday. No doubt Cabinet Ministers travel well on the taxpayer. The world’s economies are collapsing, and the world’s leaders (all in their holiday digs) simply do not have a clue and no end of photo-ops will calm the markets.

Our Government’s huge budget cuts have resulted in the closure of youth clubs. Notably in the parts of London with the ethnicity of Tottenham. Is it not time to weigh up the many millions lost in riots and arson and looting against the cost of providing boys and girls with somewhere half-decent to go on a Saturday night?

In the television coverage last night I was amazed at the many different types on the streets, though must admit there were 9 boys to every girl. But there were whites and blacks, Arabs and Hasidic Jews, and people in all sorts of clothes, from conservative to rather sluttish. Nearly all, when interviewed, seemed to speak with English accents. Imagine the fun they could have at youth group events!

Yesterday we saw a posed photograph of President Obama of the USA chatting on the phone with his military advisor, being told that over 30 US soldiers had been killed when a helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. Obama’s hair looks grey, he looks weary, and that is how he had to look. It was a single still picture, not a film. Did he also swear? Shake a fist? Curse the Taliban and their Allah? Did he shed a tear, edited out?

Could the economies of the great western nations be up shit creek because we are fighting unwinnable wars? Not just unwinnable wars, but wars that nobody seems to understand (or want) back at home.

Why are we bombing Libya, but not Yemen or Syria or Bahrain? Why not North Korea or Burma? Do we even protest at Cabinet level when a Saudi woman is the victim of Sharia Law?

Why are we being asked to send tens of millions of pounds of food aid to starving Africans who are forbidden by their Muslim leaders to accept aid from Infidels? We have to borrow to get the money to send on its lost cause. Why cannot rich Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states send aid to their Islamic brothers in Africa?

Over the last 30 years, we have been accompanied on life’s journey by no end of video games. We have shot down Space Invaders, blasted dragons, and outgunned dark-skinned forces in a desert town. At the end of the day, we have pressed the “reset” button and all returned to normal. For 30 years, death has been brief and life restored in a click. Magic! No wonder boys shoot their mates without a second thought. Press reset a thousand times to revive your dead, and pull a trigger twice. What is the harm?

Civil unrest, military disasters, monetary mayhem. It is as if natural disasters, those typhoons, tornados, tsunamis and great rumbling earthquakes just are not enough suffering for us.

I enjoyed my late night walk home from the party that threatened to cut my hair in 1965. The air was cool and the lights sparkled on the water. I just left the hassle behind and enjoyed the new moment.