Saturday, 5 April 2014

Vivid, gruesome and compelling - Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage

Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage - Ivan Cooper
7pm Friday 4 April - Headingley Library

Sally Bavage writes:

Ivan Cooper
Heinrich Harrer’s seminal book Seven Years in Tibet was an exotic influence on the young Ivan.  Heinrich was an Austrian mountaineer and climber who found himself interned in British India at the outbreak of WW2 and spent years as a prisoner.  Finally escaping to Tibet, he then remained there for seven years; a tale both of derring-do and extraordinary social, political and cultural observations.

An inspired Ivan spent two decades living and working in Asia, principally Taiwan and Korea, with spells in China and, of course, Tibet.  A forbidden city, smiling monks, Buddhism, a rich and ancient culture – the differences and the attractions were many.  He learnt to speak Tibetan and travelled widely, sometimes with a sword-wearing guide. Had he ever used it? “Only when a man insulted my mother,” showing him the nick on the blade.  He shared a tongue but was separated by culture. 

Ivan reads us excerpts from his vivid account of his Tibetan times, covering a range of aspects of life in a landscape that is both beautiful and squalid, a culture that is primitive and spiritual, life which is simple and philosophical, a society which is hospitable and brutal. 

His own journey is both physical and spiritual: he studied Buddhism from an agnostic perspective in order to better understand a guiding force that gives meaning to many of Tibet’s people, especially those in a rural environment that has more of the medieval than the modern about it.  Imagine a village without electricity, water, telephone, public services such as sewage or toilets, police, town planning.  Put in wooden huts arranged haphazardly round the inevitable monastery,  surround them by garbage heaps and pariah dogs.  You have something approaching the shanty town in which he stayed.  Happily.
Prayer flags and prayer wheels, ice-skating, snowballing monks clutching mobile phones, deities and disasters, temple gods and Mao Tse Tung -  this book has them all.  A description of a ‘sky burial’ is riveting, at once vivid, gruesome, compelling and yet somehow natural.  Yes, it has disembowelling and vultures, an aerial tug of war over a length of intestine, a mortuary platform and grim tools – cleavers, razor-toothed saw and stone bone-crushing mallets included – but a clean ending.  We are all just flesh, skin and bone, and eventually all gone, leaving just faded photographs and memories.

Ivan neither rejects his western heritage nor denies the attractions of a more centralised eastern philosophy.  He can translate the word ‘democracy’ but the meaning does not cross the political divide. Like the travel writer Colin Thubron in To a Mountain in Tibet, he recognises the contributions each make to our understanding of freedom and society.

Ivan returned after his sojourn in the wilder spaces of our world, and his imagination,  with a wife and young baby.  His distraction with the new demands on him cushioned him from too much introspection about an extraordinary journey and gave him some time to chronicle his adventures in a book that proves he is a master of the genre of travel writing.  Do read it.

Audience Comments

1.     I am so glad I came to this event which was informative and very well presented. To have the opportunity of meeting and listening to someone who has had such an interesting life and has plainly retained the courage of his convictions is a privilege. Thank you Leeds. 

2.     I am not a fan of travel writing. However I thought that the talk was well structured, the slideshow was linked in well and the Q&Q session was very informative. Good venue too.  

3.     An excellent presentation. Fascinating readings, a real window onto life in remotest parts of Tibet. Well read by Ivan – great choice of photos and very generous Q&A session.

4.     I enjoyed the talk. Anecdotes interesting. Talk came to life with slideshow at the end. Question and answer session very good. Only then did I get a sense of his journey.

5.     I had heard Ivan speak at Café Philosophique last year and bought his book after reading the flyer there. I came this evening to hear more about his travels, and enjoyed hearing him read from the book, and seeing many more illustrations through slides. A fascinating story.

6.     I find the readings entertaining and enlightening and found the discussion afterwards thought provoking.  

7.     As a Tai Chi teacher and a practitioner of meditation it is very interesting and inspiring to listen to all the wonderful atmospheric descriptions and details of this amazing culture. I loved looking at all the characterful faces and the striking colours of the artwork, architecture, clothes, landscape and of course the Tibetan flags!

8.     An excellent event – Ivan was a very engaging and clear. A full house – obviously well advertised and organised.  

9.     Fascinating insights into a way of life that is still substantially unknown. Interesting personal observations and the ambiguities his experiences evoked. Thank you.

10.  A good presentation from an original ‘source’ presenting a thoughtful view of an occupied country.

11.  Interesting readings with vivid descriptions. He read with a good clear voice. The pictures shown on screen illustrated the book excerpts he read alongside some of them. The question session was good. He answered them in detail. Nice touches of humour. His passion for the subject shone through.  

12.  Very interesting talk and slideshow. The Q&A session was very enlightening and was probably the best part of the evening. 

13.  Very interesting insight onto Ivan’s travels and his experience of Tibet. Looking forward to reading the book and very competently delivered by the author.

14.  It was a really interesting talk, very enjoyable. The Q&A session went on too long for me and I was getting restless. The photos were amazing. Thank you very much.  

15.  A fascinating insight into a troubled country. The speaker was fluent – his writing style is vivid and lively. Question time was dealt with fully. Some tricky questions received wise answers. A good evening – food for thought.  

16.  I enjoyed the reading. This was the only event I was able to get to this year. (I just move here this year). Next year I will most definitely make an effort to go to more. I have heard so many good things. 

17.  Very interesting from start to finish. The sky burial description very vivid and thought provoking. I will enjoy the book.

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