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The Worst Can Happen

I have fallen behind on my blog this week, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I was so depressed by my last one … I’ve also been thinking about the insects. Of course, they’re not ALL going to die out as there are many in regions not touched by human agriculture (though presumably they too may be affected by aerial or ocean currents). But many, it seems, will and already we have seen a considerable impoverishment of butterflies and moths in the UK as elsewhere. One of the most magical moments of recent years was walking in Italy on a mountain path where, at every step, swarms of butterflies rose up from the ground. One German word for them is Ewigkeitsfalter, which, I guess, means something like ‘eternity folds’ (the last, perhaps, referring to how their wings open and close). The Chinese also have wonderful stories about lovers’ souls transmuting into butterflies.

But before I get too cheerful, I learned another rather horrific fact in the last couple of weeks: that the native population of the Americas prior to Columbus is estimated at 60,000,000. Within a century this had been reduced to 4,000,000. This wasn’t all massacres by evil imperialists and most of the deaths seem to have been caused by the new diseases the Europeans brought with them and, presumably, the disruption to traditional ways of life meant that agriculture, hunting, and fishing all suffered. But it is a horrifying statistic. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles says that he is a spirit who wants to do evil but always ends up doing good. Sometimes it seems humans are the other way round. On the other hand there was nothing accidental about the destruction of the entire native population of Tasmania, many of whom were hunted to death. In the 90s my wife worked in the African Studies Centre in Cambridge and I used to occasionally browse some of the old books. One, from the 1930s (as I recall) had a chapter on when it was acceptable to shoot natives in the Congo.

If this is the history of our dealings with one another, we can’t be over-optimistic for the insects.

Next time, I’ll look for some light relief (Brexit, perhaps?).

Bad news first

During the last few weeks there have been two items of really bad news that are of the kind to put even Brexit in the shade – only they haven’t.

The first is that we are not beating climate change. In fact, there’s a strong chance that next year will see the largest ever emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere, while there is now a significant chance that the limitation of temperature rises to 1.5 degrees (the most optimistic target set in the Paris accord) may be breached within the next five years. If governments follow their current policies, the rise may well be double that by the end of the century. There are also various other permutations of the many complex elements involved that could see much sharper rises in both temperatures and CO2 emissions within a decade or two.

The second is that first of all the USA and then Russia are abandoning the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987. The USA accused Russia of breaching this (which it denies) but, in any case, Russia has said that without re-opening an arms race it cannot afford it will now develop a new range of ‘invincible’ weapons. There isn’t much doubt that Putin has been pursuing a cautiously expansionist foreign policy and it seems not implausible that he takes much the same attitude to international agreements as Russian athletics takes to anti-doping policies in sport. On the other hand, one is no less suspicious of ‘facts’ emanating from the Pentagon. Who knows? Either way, the bad news is that after thirty years we are no back into the domain of nuclear tit-for-tat.

These items of news may seem to have not much to do with each other, except that the kind of investment of science, material resources, money, and manpower into nuclear weapons systems is precisely the sort of industrial activity that wedon’tneed if the worst climate change scenarios are to be avoided – and that’s even true if they’re never used. The same goes for multi-billionaires like Musk and Branson pouring funds into space tourism for the global tax-evaders. Great fun if you like that sort of thing. But there’s no way it can have anything other than a negative environmental impact – and even if the tourists’ consciences move them to plant forests to off-set the carbon released by their joy-rides, they would do better just to plant the forests and leave the joy-rides (the same goes for what will be the supposedly carbon neutral World-Cup in Qatar).

And – I can’t help adding – Brexit too seems singularly unhelpful in both respects. If, as the more buccaneering Brexiters wish, we’ll soon be buying our apples and tomatoes from California, Kenya, or Australia rather than Spain and Holland, this is not going to help the planet one iota. We’re always being told how we’ve learned to value locally sourced products, except it doesn’t seem to apply in this case. The more airmiles the better, it seems! And as the US/Russia polarization seems once more to be getting into top gear (despite Trump’s foot-dragging), who’s going to gain from a weakened Europe (interesting in this connection that both Trump and Putin seem to approve Brexit)?

As it says in the Bible, everyone just carried on eating and drinking until the day came for Noah to go into the ark (a text I’ve quoted before, but perhaps amongst the most apposite for our time).

Still, there are chinks of light, Greta Thunberg for one. She’s the Swedish girl who went on strike from school in protest at the lack of attention given to climate change and who recently popped up amongst the tax-dodgers at Davos. What was great was the way she looked Christine Lagarde of the IMF in the eye, totally unfazed, as an equal. This coming week schoolchildren in Britain will be following suit. To quote the Bible again: ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, you have declared wisdom’. They seem to be right about Brexit too. But, my own obsessions apart, these things really are much, much more important than even Brexit. It’s time to put the bad news first.

D-Day with the Mail on Sunday

On Sunday our local newsagent gave me a free copy of the Mail on Sunday. Apparently the suppliers had sent too many and rather than send them back he was giving them away to favoured customers. As you may imagine, this is not a paper I normally read, but it seemed an interesting opportunity to test whether my prejudices were well-founded. They were. One article discussed the rumours that the Prime Minister may call a summer election under the banner headline ‘No 10 Prepares D-Day Election’, whilst preparations for a No-Deal Brexit were considered under the rubric of ‘Williamson invokes Dunkirk spirit’, accompanied by a picture of Kenneth Branagh in the movie Dunkirk. This comes only a couple of weeks after one conservative MP declared “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son” (this was apropos the head of Airbus, a German, indicating that the company might cut down on its British operations after Brexit).

I have noticed before that 1940 is a favoured point of reference in Brexit mythology, but Francois’ remarks really do hit a new low – of stupidity and ignorance. Edward Heath, the conservative Prime Minister who brought Britain into the Common Market (as it was called back then) himself participated in the Normandy operation as a battery commander. Of course, just for that reason, Heath, and his generation, perhaps understood the issues better than those living in the shadow of parental super-egos.

Both my parents – like nearly all the fathers and many of the mothers of  my schoolfriends – had done war service, my father joining up on the day war broke out. And because everyone of my generation had similar stories in this regard, it wasn’t on the whole, such a big deal. Their wartime experiences defined my parents  (they met in the army of occupation) but while it’s important to me and I respect what they did and suffered, it doesn’t define who I am in anything like the same way. The fact is that no one of my generation or younger (much younger in the case of Mr Fancois) can take any credit for what Britain achieved in the Second World War (let alone earlier wars)  – and by the same token, no Germans of my age or younger should be blamed for the crimes of Nazism (nor, for that matter, should those of other countries who facilitated or participated in those crimes). We weren’t born. Full-stop. This is history, and we must know it and learn from it but the better we know it the more we learn that we should not be and are not tied by it. Defining the present by models from the past is always a risky business and any analogy is only ever going to be a rough fit. Ulster Unionists continue to rehearse the Battle of the Boyne (1690) as a defining feature of their political and cultural identity but, as the country as a whole has learned to its cost, this is not a fruitful way of doing politics. Mindfulness starts with focusing on where we are now, and that’s a good rule of thumb for politics too.

Germany provides a constructive counter-example. It certainly hasn’t forgotten what happened between 1933 and 1945 or, in the East, what happened until 1989. But what, as a country, it has well understood is that it must never go there again. In this regard it has a far healthier relation to its history that, e.g. Russia, Japan, or (for that matter) France. And, of course, it would have been better for the world if the devastating and tragic cycle of history that began in the summer of 1914 had never happened at all.


A word to our sponsors

There seems to be quite a lot of discussion of sponsorship around this weekend, something that has been exercising me for a while. Before I get too irritated, I immediately concede that the phenomenon is nothing new. The dedications of literary works from the eighteenth century illustrates the dependence of writers and architects on the grandees of the day. Nevertheless, in an age of mass culture it seems irksome that companies and individuals from the world’s untaxed elites should get to decide which operas, plays, art shows, etc. the rest of us get to see and hear. It remains a mystery to me, as to why BT has money to spend on sponsoring Scottish Rugby when they don’t seem able to provide adequate customer response service (I have yet to get a satisfactory response from either live chat or phone …) As for the Premier League, do they really need sponsorship – perhaps they could make ends meet by shaving a few zeroes off the end of the players’ pay packets? I don’t mean this to be curmudgeonly, it just seems that there’ll always be enough really talented and enthusiastic young players around and a good few thousands of people who’ll gladly pay to go to see them play, enough at any rate for the players to get a house and a car and have a holiday (or two) abroad each year.

Universities too have got in on the game. The culture isn’t as advanced here as in the USA, where every School and Library is likely to carry the donor’s name, but we’re getting there. Of course, , it’s nothing new. Where did King’s College (for one) get its name? As for the Churches, their interior decorations are rarely backward in announcing who paid for what. From the Middle Ages to the present, the devout donations of those who can afford them are recorded for all posterity. And, from the same Middle Ages to the present, there have always been odd fellows like me who get annoyed – William Langland, author of the 14thcentury poem ‘Piers Plowman’, for one. His words windows bear repeating:

But God forbids such engraving to all good people—

Inscribing in stained glass the story of their beneficence,

Lest pride be portrayed there and pomp of this world.

For God can see your conscience and the kindness of your will

And the cost to you—and your covetousness, and whom the capital belonged to.

Therefore learn from me, you lords, to leave off such writing,

Inscriptions on stained glass of the story of your gifts,

Or to go calling on God’s men when you give alms,

For fear you have your hire here and you heaven as well.

Piers Plowman

Having finished The Iliad (in Richmond Lattimore’s translation) for my bedtime reading, I’ve now started on the late 14thcentury English poem Piers Plowman. To my shame, this is a work I’ve never read, despite having known about it from my schooldays, although (to be honest) knowing ‘about’ it amounts to not knowing much beyond the title, the name of the author (William Langland) and the fact that it involves an allegorical vision.

Although I’m only a couple of sections in, it’s already provoking a lot of thoughts. It starts on a May morning in the Malvern hills – as beautiful a place in England as any for the start of a visionary poem. As the poem gets into gear it soon turns into a fairly blistering attack on the state of Church and society, listing the multiple ways in which the poor and honest common people are swindled out of their hard-earned money by clergy, lawyers, and corrupt officials. An important allegorical theme is struck up when we hear of plans to marry off the figure of ‘Reward’, a beautiful lady dressed in furs and jewels, to ‘one false Fickle-Tongue’. The drama, then, is a struggle between Truth and Justice, on the one hand, and lies, falsehood, greed, avarice, and contempt on the other. The point of view is strongly Christian, and though the Church comes in for especially harsh treatment, this is precisely because it is falsifying the true word of the gospel.

It’s remarkable that this kind of criticism is being written up as openly and candidly as it is here, one hundred and fifty years before the Protestant Reformation. Possibly it is associated with such medieval movements as the Lollards and John Wycliffe, translator of the Bible into English and part of a Reformation-before-the-Reformation. It’s also remarkable for giving expression to an attitude with which we are still familiar, speaking for the common man who has to see all the fruits of success going to a wealthy and remote elite who take advantage of him at every turn. Sadly, the obscene wealth of today’s global elite, though sometimes put to the good (as by Bill and Melissa Gates), makes this story eminently relevant. And then and now officialdom blocks the common man’s claim to justice.

The feeling of being excluded or left behind by some of Britain’s poorer communities is often adduced as one of the motivating factors behind the Brexit vote. This seems likely to be true, but it is also true that such feelings are nothing new. They are a recurrent feature of our history. Those of us who are old enough to remember life before the EU remember that back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s exactly the same kinds of criticisms were made of ‘Whitehall pen-pushers’ as are made today about ‘Brussels bureaucrats’. The actors change, but the rhetoric stays the same. If and when Brexit happens, the complaints won’t stop, they’ll just get redirected once more back to Whitehall. Going further back in history, one could even say it’s the same complaints that were made against Moses during the Israelites wandering in the desert, for which God punished them by extending their wandering to 40 years.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t good grounds for the complaints. Then, as now, there probably are. The question is whether they’re being directed against the right targets. Bureaucracy can be frustrating, as we all know. But the bureaucracies of modern Western societies are sometimes the only means we have to resist the worst depredations of the untrammelled and ever-accelerating flow of capital that is a more real cause of the economic insecurity that leads to community degradation and marginalization than anything the bureaucrats come up with. And today, just as in the fourteenth century, the most effective weapon that the exploiters have in their armoury is the power to mask and distort the truth.

Estonian blues

Since our first two Celtic Connections concerts (see my last blog), we’ve also heard – in the space of one concert – Irish, Norwegian, Scottish, Senegalese, and Welsh musicians, playing in a Church designed by the famed Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. (As you probably know, Mackintosh’s Art School, amongst Glasgow’s most important historic buildings has burned down twice in recent years and is now in the process of being completely demolished.) At least in music, multiculturalism lives on. Perhaps this has always been the case, since wandering minstrels and fiddlers have been a feature of European civilization for millennia. When London became one of the great centres of international music performance in the eighteenth century, Germans and Italians played an important part – Handel being the most renowned of these, to the point at which it is debatable whether he is more a German or an English composer.

Meanwhile, following on having heard several Estonian performers on our first couple of forays into Celtic connections, I realized that Estonia is one of the countries of the European Union about which I know least. I’ve never been there and, alas, the fact that Tallinn is a major destination for stag and hen parties from Britain is not exactly encouraging. I’m not even sure that I’ve ever really known anyone from Estonia, though I did have an American friend who told me she came from an Estonian-speaking community in Milwaukee (this is one of the great things about America; another friend grew up in a Danish community in California …).

One of the few facts I did know before deciding to do some online finding-out (research would be too grand a word), was that it has the highest percentage of Russian speakers of the Baltic states. Like Latvia and Lithuania, it was part of the Soviet Union and there are still over 25% Russian speakers. This worries some, since it potentially exposes Estonia to the same kind of destabilization that has occurred in Ukraine. The difference is, of course, that Estonia is part of NATO, but in the currently uncertain case of American foreign policy don’t be too sure that it won’t happen. Putin, we can imagine, would like to see it – and he does seem to have friends in high places (or, at least, in white houses).

The other thing I knew was that it did have a strong musical tradition. In fact the whole Baltic area has recently come to be at the forefront of choral music. The best-known international representative of this resurgence is the Estonian Arvo Pärt, who has not only produced one of the most important bodies of Church music of the last forty years, but has also tried his hand at setting of Robert Burns. In the year I went to King’s, I saw Pärt sitting listening to a rehearsal of the carol he’d composed for the Nine Lessons and Carols, a small, stocky man, with a flowing beard. For those who know works such as the Berlin Mass, the carol would have been a surprise, since it sounds like a straight down the middle piece of Orthodox Church music in honour of the Virgin Mary – in fact, when I first heard it, I thought it was. One of the choir relished telling the anecdote that the Director of Music had found one bar of the score unclear and rang the composer up to ask just how long the note was meant to be, getting the reply ’It’s music. Just sing it’. I saw him one other time, when we were, in fact, in Berlin and got last-minute tickets for a performance of his Berlin Mass performed by the Estonian National Choir in the presence of the composer.

Pärt isn’t alone, and Estonia apparently has one of the world’s largest choral festivals. Their traditions of music go back a long way. It should be acknowledged that elite music education in the late Soviet Union was outstanding – thus the plethora of Russian conductors and performers now flooding Western European and American orchestras, so Estonia probably benefitted from that. In fact the 13thcentury chronicle of Saxo Grammaticus thinks it worthy of comment that Estonian warriors would spend the night before a battle singing. And, as I mentioned in the last blog, the singer we heard last week claimed that her instrument had a history going back 2000 years. Great traditions don’t come from nowhere.

We cannot envy Estonia having suffered the years of Soviet occupation. Today, however, I couldn’t help thinking that in nine weeks’ time, Estonians will still be enjoying the freedoms of the European Union and we will not. A touch of envy there. Music and other cultural activities will, of course, find ways of crossing borders, but at the moment it looks like we’re voluntarily rowing ourselves into a backwater, leaving it to others to make the most of the great broad river of European cultural life.

Celtic Connections

This week we’re taking advantage of the embarrasse de richesses that is the annual Glasgow festival known as Celtic Connections. The idea of the festival is not just to celebrate Scotland’s traditional music (though that is at the heart of it), but also to show – or rather to hear – the multiple interconnections between various traditions of Celtic music: Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx and Basque. Fairly easily, this has extended also to Scandinavia, and Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the eastern Baltic States are also regularly included. Beyond this, lines also reach out to America, Africa, and India – in short, around the world. As well as its geographic spread, the festival also embraces more than ‘folk music’ in the narrowest sense, giving space to fusions of various kinds.

It is as it is intended to be, a simultaneous celebration of national traditions and multi-culturalism. It is, on the whole, successful in both aims – though I have to admit that as far as audiences go, it’s mostly a matter for the over-60s. Nevertheless, there are many younger performers and, sometimes (as at the events we attended at the weekend) younger audiences.

So far, we’ve been having a very un-Scottish Celtic connections. The first concert was a warm-up from an Estonian singer, accompanying herself on an Estonian stringed instrument known as the Kannel, which, she assured us, went back at least 2000 years, Her singing also had an archaic quality to it, with whistling, barks, and cries that evoked a landscape of vast and ancient forests – though some of the stories told in the songs were very twentieth century, such as the pursuit of dissidents in the Soviet era through these same forests. The main act was a trio of  hip and very serious young Danes, Dreamers’ Circus, right at the contemporary end of the folk spectrum. Think U2 performed on violin, cithar, and accordion, with occasional electronic keyboard (but without vocals). All of this took place in an old Glasgow Church that was amongst the first Episcopal Churches built in the city after the Reformation, reminiscent in overall conception to Wren’s London Churches. Reflecting the colonial wealth of the city it was adorned with appropriate Baroque gilding (though I imagined I detected some covert Jacobite symbols).

Sunday night also took us to Estonia and Scandinavia, this time Iceland. The Estonian element was an electronic soundboard and violin duo, complete with light-show. At moments I imagined I was back in the 60s – and again there were primeval cries and wails. Which may say something about Estonia. The Icelanders were a small ensemble, Amina, who accompanied a silent French crime thriller from 1913, Fantomas.  It ended with the police all getting blown up and the villains escaping. Great musicianship, which seemed to tell the story being shown in the pictures with barely any need for words.

This too was in  a former Church, St Luke’s, just opposite the edge of Glasgow’s famed market, ‘the Barras’, and on the edge of Calton, an area of the city where male life expectancy is lower than in Gaza. As we waited for the bus, a drug transaction took place a few yards away. The purchasers were small wizened men who were shaky on their legs. Probably they were twenty years younger than I am, but will likely be dead before me. What a paradox. All this creativity from all these exciting and imaginative young people from across Europe – while forgotten lives sink into oblivion outside. But these are mad times.