Marching to remember

Horse leading paradeTerm 5

Police horses and pearlies, cadets and marching bands all assembled in the Sunday morning cold, alongside veterans, local dignitaries and others wanting to pay their respects. The nearby plaque to those who died in a V1 bomb attack in 1944 was a sombre reminder of why the Remembrance parade starts here.

Adjustment to police cadet capAs I arrived I saw uniforms being adjusted and frantic phone calls made to those cutting it fine for the prompt start. John, the local Pearly King and his son Darren, the Pearly Prince, were both in attendance, sparkling and weighed down in their traditional Cockney suits.

Pearly King and Prince

As the varied groups gathered in formation, I noticed how they held themselves and what their hands were doing. Even before the parade began, body language in uniform was stiff and formal. The Honourable Artillery Company and the army cadets clasped hands behind their backs, while the police cadets held their arms stiffly by their sides, hands curled and closed. Chests were puffed out, shoulders back, legs stiff and breathing restricted. Feet stood close together, boots polished and shiny.

Honourable Artillery Company
Honourable Artillery Company
Army Cadets
Army cadets
Police cadets
Police cadets

Drummers

The drummers were more relaxed as they waited, despite their starring role at the head of the parade. I thought about the heavy drums they held strapped in front of them, and the effect that carrying the weight while playing and marching would  have on their bodies over the next hour or so.

The troops massed into line, an officer barked the command and the parade moved off. Every so often a leader shouted an order to keep the disparate marchers in time.  Each group saluted as they passed the local fire station, with firefighters standing helmeted and to attention outside.

Parade moves off

Rigid military bearing is the opposite of the free open movement I’m working towards with the Alexander Technique, and I was acutely aware of the contrast as the soldiers marched by. I felt uncomfortable as I watched their taut faces and held body language. I felt relieved and breathed more easily when they had moved on.

Honourable Artillery Company marching

Honourable Artillery Company

The parade continued, marching to the drummers’ beat and collecting more officials and children’s groups. We all came to a quiet standstill at the war memorial, where hundreds of people had gathered for an outdoor inter-faith service.

Sea cadets

Brass bandThe crowd hushed as the trumpeter sounded the Last Post and we stood for two minutes in silence. Representatives of local groups and members of the public laid poppy wreaths then the crowd dispersed to warm themselves in the coffee shops nearby.  Poppies

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.