Blake and the Pandemic

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White reflects on the troubled times we find ourselves in under lockdown with Covid-19, and on what’s ahead for the Finding Blake film — and, with joy, to some extras we’re looking forward to sharing.


Well, what strange times!

We know that Blake didn’t live through a pandemic, although he understood the coming of industry as the harbinger of the spiritual crisis in the West that started then and has brought us to this point today. This time of corona — a virus passed from animal to human, likely to have transferred across in the so-called ‘wet meat’ markets of Wuhan in China — is happening because the process of industrialisation, now fully developed into the capitalist economy, has expanded so rapidly in these years since Blake’s death in 1827.

Pestilence, by William Blake (circa 1795-1800) http://museums.bristol.gov.uk

So-called ‘economic growth’ has spread like wildfire across the globe and literally eats into territory that was and should be the exclusive dominion of ‘the others’: the beautiful wildlife we share this planet with — the bat, the pangolin, the wild boar, the butterfly, the snow leopard, and of course the tiger — hunted in China for the medicinal values of its organs, or to be shipped around the world to be ‘preserved’ and gawped at in zoos.

Look on the rising sun: there God does live 
And gives his light, and gives his heat away. 
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.

— from The Little Black Boy, by William Blake

And, in a far more minor way, coronavirus has now prevented us from getting our Finding Blake film into the world, and its bigger message of being part of the beautiful, strange and varied canon of creative responses to Blake’s life and legacy that have emerged since his death. I’m really proud of this piece of work being part of the legacy of responses to these values: the ‘golden thread’ of ethics and belief, and questioning and care that Blake (and many others) tapped into. Values that are so much needed in this beautiful and tragic world today, at this time of climate crisis, planetary warming, social injustice. There is now a growing recognition of human anthropocentrism — which sees us as being the ‘dominant’ species at the top of the tree, but cutting off the roots below — of which this tragic pandemic, which will have devastating consequences for our interconnected tribal species, is probably just one part. Blake knew, and communicated through his images and words, the true ecological and spiritually connected web of life.

More joyous things to come

So, we held a preview screening at the Kindersley Workshop. This was for Lida (the creator of the new ledger stone for Blake’s burial site at Bunhill Fields in London), and friends and funders, and it was a joyous, small event, with much discursive response in the Carpenters Arms afterwards. I’ve taken all that feedback away and am making some minor structural tweaks and tech/sound adjustments right now. And I’ve started the process of arranging screenings UK-wide — but this process was on lockdown anyway as Finding Blake is being considered for the UK’s flagship documentary festival for June (hint: in a northern city famous for steel) and, naturally, the film couldn’t be publicly screened until then if it gets in.

William Blake’s ledger stone at Bunhill Field, 2018. By GrindtXX – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bunhill_Blake_2018.jpg

We’re looking forward to screening publicly post-corona, though we’ve been invited to screen at another UK documentary festival in November! Don’t know the details just yet, or any restrictions but hope to soon (hint: in a bijou seaside town, where Pears used to play and allegedly Morrissey has a house). I’ve been reaching out to all the people who appear in the film to thank them and share news with them, and some screening opportunities are emerging there too. 

Given that we are all on lockdown, I’m hoping that we can get Finding Blake online in some pay-per-view capacity sooner rather than later. All details on that will be announced here, as will all the extra Blakean offerings: I have been making the extra scenes, outtakes and scrumptious other pieces that I couldn’t squeeze into the film into a package alongside the main feature. We hope to drip-feed some as extra teasers for the film here.

And we’ll start that off — although we can’t give an exact date yet — with an exclusive film of poet Sasha Dugdale reading her Forward Prize-winning long-form poem Joy. From the mouth of Catherine Blake, Joy is an absolutely exquisite piece of work and Sasha, currently poet in residence at St John’s College Cambridge, gave a morning over a year ago now to come into a beautiful old Victorian house being renovated beside the river in Cambridge, and be filmed reading her piece. Sadly, I couldn’t use this within Finding Blake — a case of bad planning on my part, juggling so many pieces of the Blakean puzzle together at the same time — so the footage is being crafted into one beautiful unique film of its own by a master editor in Canada. Again, that piece will be exclusive to this Finding Blake project, so we’ll announce it and release it here.

Finding Blake invited poet Sasha Dugdale to read her poem 'Joy' for us.
Sasha Dugdale, filming a performance of ‘Joy’ for Finding Blake
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2019 sky-larking.co.uk

The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking.
I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour
and joy
I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and
a god
I see him bent by the gate, setting the fire, and he
is a fallen demon
I see him listening to the wind and sorrowing
I see wrath and misery, fire and desolation
A thousand fires in ancient London
And then the grass comes silent silent with the
hardest colour of all
The mirth colour the corn colour the summer
night colour
A thousand thousand summer nights pass
And children weave their daisy chains and place
them on the heads of fallen idols
He wept he wept more tears than there were days
And never changed the door lest, he said, we drive
an angel from it
And every morning he dipped his brush in wrath
and mildness
And out of him tumbled the biggest things of all
All of them righter than the rightest calculation
And truer than any compass
Yet where they were right and true none could say
And how they were right and true none could guess
But I knew I knew
He was an eye, and the eye wept and frowned and
smiled
The eye watched
The eye watered
The world was a mote in that eye

— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale

Finding a time to reset

Until then, we hope you’re finding creativity and inner strength and resilience during this strange tough time. There will be difficult days ahead, and it feels like we as a species-community need to tackle this crisis in so many ways: medical, scientific research, social isolation, political and in a very humane, spiritual, soul-searching way. Most of all, with compassion and care and with genuine grief and a fully authentic response to the joys and the tragedies of life. It’s time to reset.

I’m in Oxford, where Finding Blake has much of its roots: where I saw the fabulously inspiring ‘Apprentice & Master’ Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean in 2014, and to where I returned (and they so generously flung open their doors to us) to film David Whyte; and then later to film Carol Leader give her talk on using Blake in her psychotherapeutic practice. So it’s a treat to be self-isolating within this other ‘hallowed’ city, so similar and yet so unlike my home city, the ‘other place’, Cambridge. I’ve offered the Ashmolean Museum a ‘thank you’ screening, so hopefully sometime later this year Blake will be back within those walls again.

I’m looking very closely at both the tiny things — the grains of wheat to feed the birds (isn’t there such rich birdsong now there are so few cars and so little sounds of industry?), planting vegetable and sunflower seeds a-plenty, and also remembering to look up, to look at the trees that frame so much space, and the light that bleeds into our retina and allows us to see. Let’s use the inspiration of Blake within these strange times…


Notes

Joy, by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Carcanet Press (2017).

You can view our trailer for the Finding Blake film in this recent post from James. 

 

 

Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.

 

Another Jerusalem

Finding Blake welcomes back artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss, with a new poem – Another Jerusalem – and her account of the inspiration for this work in dream, and in the work and wisdom of Blake and other thinkers and writers.

Another Jerusalem 

I dreamed I danced beside a wall with unknown friends, maybe three.  
No music played but still within we heard a call and danced, beside a wall. 

The dream went on, the second night a bigger crowd was there. 
No words were passed but all were light of foot and many smiles were shared.  

Night three the crowd was bigger still, all dancing while the wall stood soft 
Somehow, though limestone made and marked where countless hands had pressed  

And whispered truths and prayers and dreams and curses...  
This time we chose freedom from speech and danced our stories.  

The next night still the party grew: all silent dancers, full of smiles. 
I woke in wonder that such vivid smiling people could be conjured just by dream. 

Where we have walls, where speech brings argument, disharmony: 
Bring only inner music. 
Bring no words. 
But dance with wild abandon  
Become friends with unknown dreamers 
Belong to all nations Come barefoot 
And dance. 

Salli Hipkiss © 6th April 2018. All rights reserved.

Writing an introduction to this poem seems a little out of place in some ways, suggesting as it does a move beyond words! However, a little placing in context might appeal to some people, so here goes…

Some acts of creation take years to come to fruition, and some, happily, come along almost effortlessly, and so it was with this poem. It really was inspired by a vivid dream that unfolded pretty much as the poem tells!

However, reflecting on the dream and writing the poem as a response, I found myself recalling real walls that exist or have existed or are sadly being proposed in current times. 

In April this year the Dalai Lama published a book for young people called A Call For Revolution. In it he presents the idea of a revolution of compassion. He remembers being present in 1989 as the Berlin Wall was dismantled by the young people of East and West Germany. He says:

“I feel very emotional thinking back to the moment when I arrived, candle in hand, at the site where the wall had been breached.  The jubilant crowd lifted me up onto the rubble. It was an extraordinary moment and I felt the breath of peace and freedom exhaling throughout the world.”

Inspired by such positive, peaceful, collective actions, through the book he calls for young people today to commit to a Charter of Universal Responsibility that actively leads to peace and the dissolution of constructed divisions, whether physical or ideological. 

Finding a common ground

Writing in the 13th-century the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī wrote the beautiful lines:

Out beyond 
Ideas of right doing 
And wrong doing: 
There is a field, 
I’ll meet you there.

I am intrigued by places that allow people to find ‘common ground’, or where they are at least able to put aside differences and meet with open hearts. The wall in my dream was not a specific place, but more a feeling for this kind of inclusive space. 

While reflecting on the dream, the wall that kept coming back into my mind was the Western Wall in Jerusalem, also known as the Wailing Wall, Kotel, or in Arabic as Ḥā’iṭ al-Burāq. I decided therefore to title the poem Another Jerusalem, reflecting both on modern-day Jerusalem and William Blake’s poem of the same name, and the famous song Jerusalem, which is based on text from Blake’s poem Milton

The Western Wall has deep meaning and history for Jews, Christians and Muslims and the Jerusalem walls are listed, along with the Old City of Jerusalem, on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. As one of the ‘status quo of the Holy Land’ sites it is a place of pilgrimage for all and now forms a fragile meeting point of cultures and religions, rather than a physical division.

The idea that a wall, originally designed to divide, to keep some in and others out, might inadvertently become a meeting point, resonated with the theme I had taken from the dream.  There are also many meeting points between different religions and ideologies that become evident when we look for similarities rather than differences.

Writing in the 18th-century, Blake boldly illustrated the aphorism: “All Religions Are One.”

‘All Religions Are One’, by William Blake 1788
Public Domain: Wikipedia

This recalls for me another lovely poem by Rumi:

Spring overall. But inside us
There is another unity.
Behind each eye
One glowing weather.
Every forest branch moves differently
In the breeze, but as they sway
They connect at the roots.

In our increasingly multi-cultural societies it feels as if we could possibly be closer than at any other time in history to realising that we are all part of one big family tree: that we all “connect at the roots”.  In the way of this is a clinging to a simplistic world-view that divides people into ‘Us and Them’.

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake describes:

…two contraries which are called Qualities and with
Which every substance is clothed, (they) name them good and evil
From them they make an abstract…

The italics on ‘Qualities’ are my own, for although this is the usual transcription, I can’t help wondering if the word Blake might have had in mind was ‘Dualities, which also fits with the general flow of his ideas. ‘Dualities’, polarising notions of good and evil, lead too easily to concepts of ‘Us and Them’.

A short distance away from Jerusalem today the Israel and Palestine conflict remains unresolved. A new wall is being proposed along the Mexico and USA border, to many people’s dismay. Surely at this time humanity needs to be putting its creative energy into moving beyond the kind of divisive ‘abstract’ thinking that Blake was exploring: thinking which can too easily make an ‘evil’ out of a ‘contrary’.

The Dalai Lama has written:

“In November 2015 after the Paris terrorist attacks, I faced up to the failure of religion. Every religion persists in cultivating that which divides us, instead of uniting us around what brings us together… There is an urgent need to go beyond religion. It is possible to live without religion, but can one live without love and compassion? The answer is no.”

A creative force for peace

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake talks of: “Striving with systems to deliver individuals from their systems”

There seems to me something generous in Blake’s forging of his personal mythology or ‘system’, in his rejection of the oppressive qualities of religious doctrine, and his own unique interpretation of Christianity. His personal striving for freedom of creative imagination paves the way for others to follow their own paths, leading to a multiplicity of visions: a route that in turn leads perhaps to unity and universality through diversity.

Blake writes :

I must make a system, or be enslav’d by another Man’s,
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to create.

Creativity is such a powerful force for peace. Indeed peace is often found more easily when adversaries focus on a joint creative or collaborative project, rather than on the ‘serious business’ (usually through talking) of creating peace itself. Similarly peace of mind or even happiness usually elude us when we focus on them as ends in themselves, but ‘find us’ when we focus on positive external endeavours, especially those that benefit other people rather than just ourselves.

Thus, maybe it is all our ‘business to create’. To make our own ‘systems’ but to recognise they are our own and to therefore recognise that others’ ‘systems’ are theirs and equally valid. This moves beyond tolerance somehow and becomes refreshingly immediate and both inclusive and expansive.   

At my most optimistic, I like to consider that perhaps even the controversial current proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the USA might inadvertently act as a meeting point, pulling many individuals and nations together in voicing their common feeling that the wall shouldn’t be built, and that those seeking refuge across borders all around the world should be helped rather than punished.

The voice of compassion

In Blake’s Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion his feminine figure of Jerusalem:

…stretchd her hand toward the Moon & spoke
Why should Punishment Weave the Veil with Iron Wheels of War
When Forgiveness might it Weave with Wings of Cherubim…

I think Blake was ahead of his time in giving Jerusalem a feminine character and attributing to her the voice of compassion. Writing in 2017 the Dalai Lama says:

“I have a dream: Women will become national leaders… I call upon the next generation of young women to be the mothers of the Revolution of Compassion that this century so desperately needs.”

Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 2, copy E.
Relief etching with watercolour additions.
William Blake
Public Domain: The William Blake Archive

As I write these lines, the full moon is just rising over the birch trees close to my house, reminding me again how connected we all are over time and space and across differences in ideology: connected by our views of the same night skies and illuminating celestial bodies and through the tapestries of our dreams.

I can’t claim to hold company with any of the great poets, writers, thinkers and leaders I recall here, but in its humble way I hope my poem Another Jerusalem, adds another voice to the gentle but urgent call for unity, inclusivity and compassion, rather than duality and antagonism, alongside the recognition that it is all ‘our business to create’, in order to achieve a lasting dance of peace. 


Notes

Salli Hipkiss is a poet, writer, artist, songwriter, and singer who for fifteen years has worked freelance as a creative practitioner and teacher/advocate of arts and sustainability, recently alongside being a full-time home-schooling Mum. Salli’s creative work has moved between art, music, illustration, songwriting, poetry, novel-writing and more.  She is passionate about human creativity and individual flourishing, and about environmental sustainability and regeneration, and is curious about how the two areas can be symbiotic, leading to a holistic vision of wellbeing. Some of her portfolio can be explored on her website: www.sallihipkiss.com

You can read about Blake’s poemJerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion at this Wikipedia page and hear recordings of the poem on the Blake Society’s site.

Check out our More Resources page for further sources of Blake poems and art.