Wrapping it up

Baguette packaging Term 5

A recent trip to France had me wandering up and down supermarket aisles, all in the interests of Alexander research.   I wanted to know what French food packaging could tell me about body use. More so than in the UK, it seems that human and animal bodies are used to promote food. Not surprisingly, given its place in French life, the story begins with cheese.

First on my shopping list were the Coulommiers couple, both in traditional dress on the brightly coloured box. He holds the cheese in his open left hand, but scolds her with his right, as her eyes pop out and her hands grasp at the delicious box of creamy cheese. It’s a good example of Alexander end-gaining – her focus on the cheesy prize limits her awareness of what’s around her and her own body use.

CoulommiersNext up was Cousteron man. He comes from another strand of cheese marketing – the producer or farmer smiling broadly with farm or well-fed cows in the background.  Eyes are twinkly, body language is open, one hand clasps the cheese. He’s reliable and trustworthy – you can safely pick this pack and trace its origins from your basket back to producer, animals and land. Given the sheer quantity of cheese made in France, it’s also a way of differentiating between brands, giving them a personal and local touch, marking them out from others of the same kind or region.

CousteronFurther along the aisle I found a monk silently marketing another brand, conveying in a single hand gesture the heavenly taste and delicious secret of Chausee aux Moines.  Occasionally animals are allowed to edge the humans aside and star on the box. Cows are often red, sometimes laughing, always content and friendly.  Goats and sheep are modest, less flashy, perhaps for the more discerning cheese-eater.

The shelves of fromage exhausted, I moved on to ‘heritage’ food, where the human body in action is used to emphasise tradition, quality and natural simplicity.  Body use seems better.  Whether cracking walnuts by hand on a cake box, gathering additive-free salt or carrying milk churns to turn into butter, everyone seems balanced, upright and contentedly absorbed in their tasks.  There are no extravagant gestures here, but more simple line drawings, a strong sense of workers getting on with the job, producing and advertising food with no excess effort or tension.

Cracking walnuts

When food originates abroad rather than in France, the packaging still features humans, but often reinforces national stereotypes – a Samurai warrior on Japanese rice, a Canadian lumberjack on maple syrup, North African or Middle Eastern faces on couscous and spices.  No people for post-Brexit British cheddar though – just Big Ben and a red London bus.

I found the most interesting food packaging just as I was heading to the checkout.  A few kilometres from the supermarket is one of the largest Buddhist centres in France, producing a range of calming teas and infusions.  These had their own distinctive display, with fluid drawings of horses, monkeys, birds and flowers in bright colours on reusable tins.  It was the quarrelling cheese couple that had drawn me in, but the flowing animals that guided me home.Le Pere Normand

Camembert

Chaussee aux Moines

Coulommiers cows

La vache qui rit

Salt

Isigny butter

cheddar cheese

Japanese rice

Maple syrup

couscous

Epices Rabelais

Animal teas

Horses

Silence and words

Erling Kagge at the British Library
“Life is long if we listen to ourselves often enough, and look up” says Erling Kagge

Term 5

Erling Kagge, the Norwegian explorer and publisher, took fifty days to walk alone in silence to the South Pole. He describes the end of his journey:

“It was more difficult to start talking again than it had been to get up early all of those fifty mornings.  Being on the journey is almost always more satisfying than reaching the goal.  We prefer the hunt for the rabbit over its capture.”

I went to hear him talk about his experience of silence on this and other expeditions, and how he now makes space for silence in his everyday life.  He described the noise of his thoughts on the first couple of days in the Antarctic. It was only when this calmed down that he began to appreciate the depth and richness of the silence around him.  At first he perceived the landscape as entirely white and flat.  But as his senses awakened and re-calibrated to the new environment he began to see different colours and perspective in the snow, ice and sky.

“Only when I first understood that I had a primal need for silence, was I able to begin my search for it – and there, deep beneath a cacophony of traffic noise and thoughts, music and machinery, iPhones and snowploughs, it lay in wait for me.  Silence.

…. I had to use my legs to go far away in order to discover this, but I now know it is possible to reach silence anywhere.  One only need subtract.”

I’m half-way through my Alexander training now, and it seems I’m learning how to subtract.  I’m taking away the habitual busy-ness from my thoughts and movements leaving a welcome capacity for inner quiet and silence.  When everything is still I become more receptive to the messages teachers give me with their words and hands.  By calming my internal chatter and excess muscle tension, my senses are opening up and I’m starting to hear, see and feel the world more accurately and in more depth.  The landscape is no longer just flat and white.

Within the silence I’m starting to formulate words.  I’m a linguist by background, so for me the Alexander training is like learning a language.  To start with I wanted rules, grammar, vocabulary, building blocks. Then I made simple sentences. I couldn’t say much. Now I’m running ahead of myself, wanting to speak and understand before I really know how.  But sometimes I become fluent, and I can listen, think, move, speak, make sense. Not altogether, not all the time, not for very long but often enough that I want to keep going.  I’m quietly finding the silence and out of that I’m slowly finding the words.

Erling Kagge’s book is called Silence in the Age of Noise.

 

 

In the saddle

Horse sculpture, Marble Arch
Still Water (2011, bronze) by Nic Fiddian-Green

Term 5

I’ve sat on a saddle more times in the past eighteen months than I have in the rest of my life.  It doesn’t move – its purpose is to release leg muscles and improve balance and poise as part of my Alexander training.  I mention this only because I’ve just discovered who invented the saddle.  According to curators at the British Museum, it was probably the Scythians, nomadic warriors living over 2000 years ago in southern Siberia.

The saddle helped both rider and horse, spreading human weight better so the horse was more comfortable, could travel further and live longer. The Scythians used this to full advantage. Unlike me, they were anything but static in the saddle and were feared as agile fighting horsemen far beyond their homeland.

I have something else in common with these nomads.  Our weekly tai chi session includes a movement known as ‘drawing the bow’. We do this slowly and thoughtfully, able to put aside the martial origins.  But for Scythians the action was all too real, the bow their weapon of choice.  As well as firing poisoned arrows, they developed a short curved bow of layered wood and sinew. This gave extra tension and energy and was easier to use from the saddle. They became feared opponents who really did eat, shoot and leave, appearing out of nowhere on horseback, firing deadly arrows at their enemies and swiftly returning home.

Horses were at the heart of their culture – they bred them for speed, used the hides and drank fermented mares’ milk.   Once they perfected light durable saddles and riding gear, they moved fast and far, extending their territory.  Even the clothes they wore on horseback had special belts for quick access to weapons in a sudden attack.

Most of this we know from burial mounds preserved in the Siberian ice and permafrost.  They were not a writing culture and, as nomads, left no buildings.  Their beloved horses came with them to the grave, buried and decorated with special saddle cloths and head ornaments, becoming mythical animals riding into the afterlife.

I sit quietly in the saddle atop my wooden horse, and later move slowly to draw my tai chi bow. I think of the Scythians able to do both things at once, in balance at speed, turning easily in the saddle, two hands on the bow and arrow, yet still able to direct the horse, take aim, and dodge their opponents.

Even though the Scythians are long dead, the exhibition at the British Museum conveys a strong sense of modernity, movement and life. It’s not just the mobility of their nomadic lifestyle and horsemanship. A wooden mallet and ladder used in making one of their deep graves seem to have been cast aside only moments before. I can almost smell the wood through the glass.  Furs and embroidered textiles retain colours still bright from their time in the permafrost. Golden jewellery and ornaments show craftsmanship and a deep understanding of animal forms real and mythical.

The wind of Siberia whistles through the exhibition soundtrack. A piece of tattooed human skin preserved in a grave catches everyone’s attention and the queue slows down so we can all take a look. The sinuous animal shapes are no longer visible to the human eye, but are brought to life through imaging to reveal designs we could easily see on tattooed bodies today.

Line drawing of tattoos on Scythian man (from the British Museum blog)
Line drawing of tattoos on Scythian man (from the British Museum blog)