Sunday 31 May 2020


Two months ago, a man disappeared. He had dementia, so it was not an unexpected manifestation. Three weeks after the disappearance, his body was found. And the world paid their obituary dues. The world that knew him, or of him. His name was Peter Beard.

Some names float into our consciousness but don’t take root. We are usually too distracted. Sometimes we simply aren’t ready. One of the great joys of being human is the discovery of an old being, or way of life, new to us. That is why age is of so little consequence or significance in the knowing and understanding of ourselves. Someone can always teach you something, if you are brave enough not to be foolishly arrogant.

Peter Beard was a photographer. Born into the wealth of a Gatsby like family in Manhattan, he sidestepped the suggestion he ‘go into advertising’ (money making more money), and instead, inspired by Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’, found himself at 17, in Africa. His guide was Quentin Keynes, the photographer (son of scholar collector Geoffrey Keynes, nephew of economist Maynard Keynes, grandson of Charles Darwin). Peter bought Hog Ranch, in Kenya, a few years later, and there, tickling warthogs, feeding giraffes and falling asleep under stars, made the world his home. Animals weren’t always so amenable. An elephant matriarch charged him once, goring her tusk into his leg and crunching his ribs. ‘We are real apes,’ he said. ‘It just so happens that we have learned how to think, quite a lot more than we ever expected.’

The world made him their home too, as is our wont with humans who inspire. Thus Francis Bacon painted him nine times in triptych, he was befriended by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali claimed Beard as his late younger brother, resurrected, and Beard himself ‘found’ Iman on the streets of Nairobi - he liked to describe her as an illiterate Somali goatherd; she, who spoke four languages and knew nothing of jungles. The fashion world naturally adored him for the extraordinary image combination of the modern body beautiful set within the first continent’s natural charm. A double seduction of the camera. There was, of course, something about the white colonial about him... but he was conscious of his own part in the conversational destruction of our ecology.

What most fascinates me about Peter is the way he lived in collage.

There is a powerful trend today (brought on by our worst excesses) to minimise and tidy. When I look around my home, which is two houses in one (at least) - India in England - I sometimes feel it’s all too much, since none of it can be taken, Pharoah style, into the next world. I have spent portions of my twenty years in lupus quarantine, tidying and sorting, only to wake the next day to naughty elves having opened the cupboards and cabinets and released a fresh hurricane of things, each containing its own halcyon of memories. The naughty elf is me, of course. Because to be neat, tidy and indexed is far removed from my nature. Mine is the nature of a Peter Beard collage, collecting, gathering, foresting for survival against the long hours of isolation. Spiritual fodder for humans does not come from the mind and psyche alone. We have always needed stones, pebbles, shells, feathers, sparkling crystals and rusty, broken but reusable furniture. Photographs are pensieves for our memories, runes from the past. Letters are a fellow human’s call to us.

In your quarantine, did you tidy? Or did you lovingly admire the gatherings of your years on earth, appreciating the textures of your collected self?

(P.s. a Pensieve is a shallow basin into which you can place your memories, and sort through meaning from chaos. If you are Professor Albus Dumbledore, that is...)

Friday 22 May 2020


Sometimes we hear the train, Dad and I, as we perambulate the length of the garden. Sometimes we  hear only wind. I see the tops of trees, ours, but not ours; they could be found anywhere, in any other clearing.

May is rounding out her month and soon June will be sent our way. Is your honeysuckle out? We have the scent of Syringha, planted for Shelagh...

I woke up this morning with a burning left eye, and now even after the sun has set, the rice is on the stove, and the song thrush is harmonising her final duets, I have the look of a badger about me.

Delftia some weeks ago, and now Klebsiella - ought I to take comfort in the strange fact that even my colonisations of bacteria have poetic names? My immunology nurse mentioned the word ‘strange’ over and over again. ‘These are strange times,’ she said. Strange, strange, strange.

My heart does funny loops and a bell is tolling like an echo in some distant yet ever near place. Do you hear this bell too? The Great Bell in Buddhism is a reminder to return to ourselves. This quieter bell seems more sinister, pulling us away from ourselves. To where?

I am reading Laurens Jan van der Post on his friend Jung. My dearest Colette sent me her copy of ‘Jung and the Story of our Time’. I feel I have already loosened the binding of this 1976 Penguin edition as I carry the book around with me, and move forward, and return to passages, and read aloud to Dad. ‘Hopkins! Schweitzer! Meister Eckehart!’ He hails these old friends as they are mentioned. Reading of the great ‘thuses of life’, what the fourteenth century Dominican mystic Meister Eckehart called istigkeit, the ‘isness’ of time and place, what Buddha called tathagata or ‘suchness’ - I am glad of mystery and the uncomfortable comfort of consciousness.

What are you reading now? And does it bring you comfort?

Thursday 14 May 2020


A broken bird feeder found its way to me last year.
I painted it in shades of country cream.

I filled a cup of water, and sprinkled a meal, 
fit, I thought, for any feathered queen.

No bird came. Months passed by,
and today, hurrah, a visit made.

Bib of blue, and frankly suspicious, she flitted 
and flirted, from lilac to magnolia, 

to her new wooden house,
unconscious of my joyful gaze.

Chaffinch and sparrow followed, drinking in the rain,
picking through the catkin carpet,

the willow leaves, 
the tall, unwieldy, unmowed grass. 

Meanwhile, the news. Meanwhile, the roll call of names 
we never knew, strangers perching gently on our hearts. 

You ask me if I believe in God.
I say, What is God? What is a poem

I say, I lost my friends one by one to time, 
but when the birds came to call,

I found I had lost not one of my friends, 
not one of them at all. 

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

Today, May 14th, was the birthday of both my Uncle Motu and my Aunty Saida. They weren’t twins. Aunty was five years older. They loved us kids equally. Growing up, we were showered with love when they visited our Bombay home, which had been their childhood home, and then when we moved to our shared new homeland of England, love continued, unperturbed by changed geographical boundaries. They are both gone now, into the other world ... but the memory of love remains.