Thursday 29 October 2009

What is an Imp?

The following definition of an imp was emailed by a friend of mine, one who happens to run Dark Witchcraft, one of my favourite social networks. Anyway, this sums up Ana perfectly. :-)

What is an Imp?

In Germanic folklore, an imp or sometimes daemon is a small demon who is more mischievous than harmful. Various versions of imps appear in the folklore of some other regions of the world as well, often as attendants to gods. The behaviour of imps is said to be wild and often out of control, and many myths depict the creatures revelling in pranks and jokes, leading to the use of the word “impish” to describe people who are fond of mischief.

According to tradition, imps are often very small. Depictions of imps in art and sculpture tend to show them on a much smaller scale than other beings, and they are often not very attractive to look at. Some myths also describe imps as trapped inside objects, such as swords, books, and crystal balls. In some cultures, imps were believed to be the assistants of witches and warlocks. Witch hunts often sought familiar spirits such as imps in an attempt to condemn their victims.

In some cultures, fairies are analogous to imps. Both share the sense of being free spirited and fun loving, although some people associate fairies specifically with good, rather than malice, as is the case with imps. Imps and fairies are both fond of misleading people in the folklore of many traditions, and they may be involved with pranks, switches of infants, and similar activities. At times, these pranks may be harmless, but they can also be dangerous or upsetting, as in the case of an imp which leads people astray in marshes.

An imp is generally believed to be immortal, although the creatures may be subject to damage in the mythological traditions of some countries. Although they are immortal, imps are considered far less important than bigger demons and gods, and the relative unimportance of imps is sometimes an important point in folktales about imps in which an imp tries to prove itself. Imps are also often depicted as lonely and hungry for human attention. In some stories, an imp seeks out human companions through its jokes and tricks, while in others imps are depicted as more capricious, playing tricks on their human allies out of boredom or simply their impish nature.

My Favourite Pagan Holiday

From the west comes old Death
A-riding on the storm
With hungry eyes for funeral fires
To burn till the morrow's dawn
For tis the night, here comes the dead
Unbound from the Underworld
And the children dress as the babes of Hell
All the boys and all the girls
And the fires shall burn
And the wheel of life shall turn
And the dead come back home on Samhain
And in the night sky
On the lunar light they fly
And the dead come back home on Samhain
At the Sabbat high on the funeral hill
Wait the witches at the feast
For the first winter’s day
The first winter’s sun
A-rising in the east
For Death has come for the summertime
And to take the leaves of spring
Hecate, Nemesis, Dark Mother take us in

I love Halloween, Samhain, if you prefer, the death of summer, of the old year; the night of the dead, of witches, sprits and ghosts. It’s the perfect time for spells, for rituals, for dumb suppers, divination, séances…and parties!

The tradition as we have come to understand it is really an amalgamation of two things, the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow’en), meaning ‘summer’s end’, and the Roman celebration of Pomona, the spirit of the crops. Add to the brew several other festivals of the dead, including that of the Corn Mother, and one of the great Witches’ Sabbats. I had my own Sabbat last year, just as I will this year, with lots of witches and warlocks, dressed in various guises, and the spirits mingling freely! Last year I was Erzebet Bathory; this year I shall be Ayesha, the sorceress queen, she who must be obeyed. :-))

The real fun, the heart of the Sabbat, is at midnight, as we cross from one season to another; as the spirits of the dead, of fairies, wights and spirits break through the curtain of the night and join the living. On the lunar light they fly. The wheel of life shall turn. Have a super witchy Halloween, one and all.

Nazis and Zionists

Few people now have ever heard of Leopold von Mildenstein, once involved in an attempt to construct a working political 'partnership' between the Nazi state and Zionist movement. Now, could any subject be more loaded than that?!

I have to move carefully here, and will try to be as objective as I can. The chief point to hold in mind is that the aim of Nazi policy for much of the pre-war period was to encourage as much Jewish migration from Germany as possible. Inevitably, whatever political and ideological differences existed, this aim overlapped, to a significant degree, with similar aims by the Zionists, anxious to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

One has to remember that when the Nazis came to power in January 1933 they had no agreed solution on how the perceived 'Jewish problem' was to be tackled. There were those, of course, like Julius Streicher, who advocated an immediate expulsion of all Jewish people from German territory, though more moderate influences were quick to point out the implications of such a move for the German economy, still in deep depression. Beyond approving limited gestures, like the one-day boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, Hitler gave no clear lead in the matter, which left the way open to initiatives by agencies within the state; agencies like the SS, which began to research possible policy options. And from the midst of the SS came Baron Leopold Itz von Mildenstein, a self-appointed 'expert' on the Jewish question.

Mildenstein, who was born in Prague in 1902, had taken an early interest in Zionism, even going so far as to attend Zionist conferences to help deepen his understanding of the movement. He actively promoted Zionism as a way out of the official impasse on the Jewish question; as a way, in other words, of making Germany Judenrein (free of Jews).

The Zionists, whose movement had grown tremendously in popularity among German Jews since Hitler came to power, were keen to co-operate. On April 7 1933 the Juedische Rundschau, the bi-weekly paper of the movement, declared that of all Jewish groups only the Zionist Federation of Germany were capable of approaching the Nazis in good faith as 'honest partners.'

The Federation then commissioned one Kurt Tuchler to make contact with possible Zionist sympathisers within the Nazi Party, with the aim of easing emigration to Palestine. Tuchler approached Mildenstein, who was asked to write something positive about Jewish Palestine in the Nazi press. Mildenstein agreed, on condition that he was allowed to visit the country in person, with Tuchler as his guide. So, in the spring of 1933 an odd little party of four set out from Berlin, consisting of Mildenstein and Tuchler with their respective wives.

Mildenstein's experiences were later reported in twelve instalments in Der Angriff, Goebbels' own paper, beginning on 26 September 1934, under the title Ein Nazi faehrt nach Palestina ( A Nazi travels to Palestine). Perhaps the most curious aspect of this whole bizarre affair is that Der Angriff even commissioned a medal to celebrate this journey, with a Swastika on one side and a Star of David on the other.

On his return, Mildenstein's suggestion that the solution to the Jewish problem lay in mass migration to Palestine was accepted by his superiors within the SS. In 1935 he was put in charge of the Jewish Desk in the RSHA-Section 11/112-, under the overall control of Reinhardt Heydrich. SS officials were even instructed to encourage the activities of the Zionists within the Jewish community, who were to be favoured over the 'assimilationists', said to be the real danger to National Socialism. Even the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 had a special Zionist 'provision', allowing the Jews to fly their own flag.

In the end Mildenstein fell out of favour, because migration to Palestine was not proceeding at a fast enough rate. His departure from the RSHA after ten months in office also saw a shift in SS policy, marked by the publication of a pamphlet warning of the dangers of a strong Jewish state in the Middle East. It was written by another 'expert', who had been invited to join Section 11/112 by Mildenstein himself. His name was Adolf Eichmann.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Dancing on Graves

I was saddened and shocked by the death of Stephen Gately, though I was never much of a Boyzone fan. It is sad, and alarming, when someone only a decade or so older than oneself dies. I found out a week last Sunday when one of my girlfriends-who was a Boyzone fan-called with the news.

My first reaction, once it had sunk in, was that his death was due to some unnatural mishap; that he had gone the same way as so many other rock and pop stars before him, people who lived life to a tragic maximum. I thought it, you, I’m fairly confident, also thought it; Jan Moir, the Daily Mail columnist, said it-that was her fault, not ‘homophobia’ or any of the other hysterical accusations levelled against her. But she has apologised; she has been forced into an apology, another wretched milestone in the descent of British journalism.

I so completely agree with Ron Liddle’s argument in last week’s Spectator that ‘dancing on graves’ is what journalists do; it’s in the nature of the profession to raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions when someone as young as Gately dies, not to drown in marsh-mallow and generally hypocritical expressions of sympathy.

Quite frankly I could not care less about the ‘homosexual life-style’ or the growing passion for ‘civil partnerships.’ I’m not sure I even want to know the precise circumstances behind Gately’s death, untoward or not, ‘sleazy’ or not. But I do care about a journalist’s right to express a view, even a distasteful view, and not be crushed by the charge of Stephen Fry and his twittering army. Here is how Moir herself put it;

Can it really be that we are becoming a society where no one can dare to question the circumstances or behaviour of a person who happens to be gay without being labelled a homophobe? If so, that is deeply troubling

It surely is. I share Liddle’s dislike of the Daily Mail as newspaper, presenting, as it does, an arid, shallow, limited and bitter view of the world (like some contributors on another site I know of!). But it has the right, perhaps even the duty, as does every other newspaper in a democracy, to raise uncomfortable arguments without having to fear the consequences, without having to fear the cosh of liberal ‘consensus.’

Napoleon on St Helena

Ah, Napoleon on St. Helena, most definitely an island too far! When he was told by his British captors that was where he was bound he said "Go to St. Helena-no!-no! I prefer death" But to St. Helena he went. Lord Liverpool, the British Prime Minister of the day, explained the reasons for sending the troublesome Emperor so far from Europe-"There is only one place in the circuit of the island where ships can anchor...At such a distance, and in such a place, all intrigue would be impossible; and, being withdrawn so far from the European world, he would very soon be forgotten." But he was not forgotten, by the British least of all.

In exile, Napoleon set himself two tasks: to persuade his former enemies to grant his release, and to create an image of himself for future generations of Frenchmen, an image based on Christian concepts of martyrdom. He failed in the first but suceeded in the second, creating a myth that was to become the basis for the Second Empire. His memoirs were, in fact, a quite cynical exercise in political manipulation, and he went so far as to tell an aide "If Jesus Christ had not died on the cross, He would never have been worshipped as a God." He concluded his account of his career with an accusation and a plea "I am dying prematurely murdered by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins...I wish my ashes to rest near the banks of the Seine in the midst of the French people I have so dearly loved."

In a sense the creation of the 'Napoleon myth' was the Emperor's last great victory. Even the themes he anticipated were later taken up by his countrymen in a romantic vision that overlooked the tyranny and militarism of the First Empire. By 1840 he was being compared to Prometheus, chained to a rock (St. Helena), where his blood was drunk by the vulture of Albion;

Jesus by his strength
Saved the pagan, lost in sin.
Napoleon saved France;
Like Jesus he was sold
After odious sufferings,
Jesus died on the cross;
Napoleon at St. Helena,
Has suffered like Jesus.

In 1840 the singularly unheroic Louis Phillipe arranged for Napoleon's remains to be returned to France, to be re-interred at Les Invalides. Some 600,000 people watched the procession through Paris, with cries of Vive l'Empereur! and A bas les Anglais! While he was still alive, though, the chief preoccupation of the government of Louis XVIII was to ensure that he remained in the south Atlantic, and that there would be no repetition of the Hundred Days. The Duc de Richelieu, Louis' chief minister, even went so far as to ask his agent on St. Helena if the barrels leaving Napoleon's house at Longwood, were being checked! Some of the fear was justified, because there were indeed genuine plots to rescue Napoleon, including one from Brazil and another from Texas, where some four hundred exiled soldiers from the Grand Army dreamed of a resurrection of the Napoleonic Empire in America. Believe it or not, there was also a plan to rescue him using a submarine!

Despite his complaints and his petulance, Napoleon was not too badly treated by the British, and was more or less free to live his life in the manner of in English country gentleman in quite comfortable surroundings. When he was a boy, William Makepeace Thackery, the writer, stopped at St. Helena on a voyage from India. His servant took him to Longwood "We saw a man walking...'That is he', said the black servant, 'That is Bonaparte, he eats three sheep every day, and all the children he can lay his hands on.' " Napoleon received many visitors, to the anger and consternation of Richelieu "This devil of a man exercises an astonishing seduction on all those who approach him."

In a uniquely British way, Napoleon was transformed in the public mind from a monster to a hero, no doubt a direct expression of discontent at the reactionary post-war government of Lord Liverpool. In 1818 The Times, which Napoleon received in exile, in reporting a false rumour of his escape, said that this had been greeted by spontaneous illuminations in London. There was some sympathy for him also in the political opposition in Parliament. Lord Holland, the nephew of Charles James Fox, the former Whig leader, sent over 1000 books and pamphlets to Longwood, as well as jam and other comforts. Holland also accused the government of attempting to kill the Emperor by a proceess of slow assassination. Napoleon knew of this, and based his hopes for release on the possibility of Holland becoming Prime Minister, Richelieu's greatest fear.

Napoleon also enjoyed the support of Admiral Lord Cochrane, one of the greatest sailors of the age, closely involved in Chile and Brazil's struggle for independence. It was his expressed aim to make him Emperor of a unified South American state, a scheme that was frustrated by Napoleon's death in 1821. For Lord Byron, amongst others, Napoleon was the very epitome of the Romantic hero, the persecuted, lonely and flawed genius. At quite the other extreme, the news that Napoleon had taken up gardening at Longwood appealed to more domestic British sensibilities, which had the effect of humanising him still further. When news of his death reached Europe in early July 1821 the French Foreign Minister noted that this caused a far greater sensation in London than in Paris. Ironically, it was the British who were the first to adopt a myth, later exported to France, where tragedy was destined to be refashioned in the shape of farce.

Deconstructing Wicca

Wicca, as far as I can see, revolves on an axis created by Gerald Gardner and Margaret Murray. This does not mean to say that there were no other, lesser authors and influences at work,-including Rosicrucianism- but the essential point still stands.

Let me take the case of Margaret Murray. Her work on historical anthropology is based on the worst possible approach; she devised a theory and then tailored the evidence to suit its form There is absolutely no evidence, none whatsoever, to support her contention that witches were survivors of a pre-Christian fertility cult, or that they formed collectives to practice surviving rites. Brian Levack quite rightly says in his book on the great witch hunt that if witches ever practiced their craft at all they did so individually or in small groups.

Now look at Gardner. The whole of contemporary Wicca would seem to stand on his imaginative reinterpretation of Murray and his ‘discovery’ of the supposed ‘New Forest Coven.’ Did this ever exist? Who can say with certainty, but I rather suspect not. But from such beginnings comes all of the subsequent flummery of ‘blessings’ and ‘merry meets’ and ‘merry parts’; all of that pretentious and silly nonsense that both you and I recognise. Gardner built on Murray, on a foundation that has been dismissed by all serious scholars in the area. Here is how Levack puts it:

Some modern witches, especially the followers of Gerald Gardner, contend that early modern witches, just like themselves, were practitioners of an ancient fertility religion, Wicca, rather than devil-worshipers the authorities claimed they were. This contention is based largely on the scholarly work of Margaret Murray, and it has therefore lost credibility as Murray’s thesis has been destroyed by her critics. Not only is there no uncontaminated evidence that witches were in fact worshipping pagan gods, but there is no solid evidence that witches gathered collectively, like their modern counterparts for any purpose whatsoever. To the extent that modern witchcraft is organised into covens or even into local and regional organizations, it is qualitatively different from the witchcraft that was actually practiced (as opposed to what was believed to have been practiced) in the past.

I’m sorry if Wiccans find this uncomfortable, but it is true, notwithstanding. Witchcraft was a village art, no more than that; the practice, as I have said, of simple people who had no recourse to the wider branches of knowledge and understanding. But I do, and the Craft for me is about power; intellectual power, sexual power and my power.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

The Green Fairy

I first saw Absinthe on sale a year or so ago in a bar in Prague. I was quite surprised considering its ferocious reputation, something I had learned about in studying France and the literary demi-mode of La Belle Époque. This was a dangerous, maddening drink associated with the decadent and the degenerate. But it is also a drink which, in its original form, not in its recent reincarnation, has strong associations with witchcraft.

Absinthe is the Latin for the herb wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). The drink enjoyed by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Degas and Ernest Hemingway was distilled from its leaves, with other herbs added to make up the blend. Wormwood has ancient and powerful magical associations. The Latin root indicates clear associations with Artemis, who, amongst other things, was the goddess of the moon and witchcraft.

In magical terms wormwood is an ambivalent plant, a tool of malevolent witchcraft and a guard against its effects. In medieval times the ‘worm’ conjured up images of the serpent of the Bible, the Old Dragon, of Satan himself. By legend the herb is said to have sprung up as the serpent slithered out of Eden. So, its ominous reputation was long established.

Wormwood has been used in potent herbal brews for centuries, long before Absinthe itself was distilled. Witches used it in healing and love potions. It also, again by the light of legend, enables the drinker to communicate with the dead, and was also brewed with that specific intent. The danger here is that, unless carefully prepared and administered, one is just as likely to join the dead as communicate with them!

Although it was added to ale in England in the Middle Ages the modern drink only emerged at the end of the eighteenth century, when it was invented by a French doctor by the name of Pierre Ordinaire. Bottled and sold for commercial purposes it eventually came into the hands of Henri-Louis Pernod, who purchased the formulae. Once in his hands Absinthe began its journey into a wider world…and to infamy. Because of its emerald-green colour, and its associations with witchcraft, it soon acquired a nickname- La Fée Verte, the Green Goddess or the Green Fairy.

The glass I had in Prague had a fairly modest alcohol content, but that consumed by the bohemians of Paris was an unbelievable 120 to 160 percent proof. Because of this it was almost never drunk undiluted rather blended with water. The bitter flavour also required the addition of sugar.

In echoes of the magical reputation of wormwood, at once bad and good, Absinthe itself acquired an ambivalent reputation. Artists and writers commended it as exciting and stimulating while the authorities, identifying it with a subversive counter-culture, began to perceive it as malevolent. It was actually banned in the United States in 1912, well in advance of full prohibition. France followed this lead in 1915.

It seems obvious now that the reaction against the Green Fairy was essentially part of a wider moral panic than because of its perceived harmful effects. It’s now widely available again, though at a weaker proof. Its even sold and distilled in France where the prohibition lasted longest. Did I enjoy it? Wait a moment; I shall have to ask Artemis and the green Fairy. :-))

I want to sleep with Muhannad

I see the Turks are making some smash TV shows, a smash in the Arab world anyway. There is a show called Valley of the Wolves in which Israelis are shown doing nasty things to Palestinians, but that’s not the most popular, not by a long-way. You see Arabs don’t always go for high politics; they also like a spot of romance; they like a soap-opera called Noor.

This show, dubbed in Arabic, was first broadcast last year by MBC, a Saudi-owned satellite network viewed across the Arab world. The message is interesting, not one the Arabs are generally used to, cantering around the adventures of an emancipated modern woman. But for women throughout the Middle-East and North Africa that is not the main issue, no, the main issue is a blue-eyed blond former male model who goes by the name of Muhannad. The other issue is a portrait of a marriage; for you see Muhannad is a ‘modern man’, one who even does the dishes!

The bliss of this ideal throws the reality into a distressing contrast. Noor, it is said, is responsible for a rising number of divorces in the Arab world, as women compare Muhannad with their own husbands. In Jordan one woman was divorced after her husband found his picture on her mobile. It gets worse. In Syria another divorce was occasioned after a wife announced to her husband that “I want to sleep with Muhannad for just one night and then die.” :-))

Not surprisingly this trend has caught the attention of the Saudi religious establishment. The Grand Mufti has called for a boycott of the Turkish series, describing it as ‘evil.’ But MBC knows a good thing. Not only does Noor continue but it has obtained the broadcasting rights to other Turkish television dramas. This is how revolutions are made, by popular culture rather than grand politics. It was West German TV that brought down the Berlin Wall as much as anything else. Perhaps the Turks will bring their Muslim cousins right into the modern age, the age of Noor and dishy Muhannad.

Karl and the Boar's Head

Well, here is a little tale that may serve to amuse: Karl Marx was related through marriage to the earls and dukes of Argyll, chiefs of Clan Campbell, whose crest was the Boar's Head, with the motto in Latin Ne Obliviscaris (never forget). His wife, Jenny von Westphalen, was the grandaughter of one Anne Wishart, a descendant of the Campbells.

When Karl and Jenny were married in June 1843 the wedding presents included a collection of jewellery and silver plate with the Argyll crest, a gift from the bride's mother, and part of a legacy from the von Westphalen's Scottish ancestors. Later, when the couple were living a penurious existence as political exiles in London, Karl tried to pawn the family silver. The police were alerted, and he was duly arrested, because they refused to believe that the scruffy German refugee could have acquired these ducal heirlooms legitimately. The great prophet of world revolution spent the night in the cells, before Jenny came to the rescue in the morning.

The Campbell connection also gave the down-at-heel Karl a very distant link with none other than Queen Victoria herself: for her daughter, Princess Louise was married in 1871 to John Campbell, Marquis of Lorne, the future 9th Duke of Argyll.

Monday 26 October 2009

The Empire of the Imagination

My empire is of the imagination. So says Ayesha, the sorceress queen in She, the novel by H. Rider Haggard. In a sense the Holy Roman Empire was also of the 'imagination.' It was an ideal that never quite became a reality, and never developed in any meaningful sense as an integrated state. The maps showing the imperial borders, even before it turned into a crazy patchwork of political and religious entities, are actually quite deceptive, because even at its height under Charlemagne and Otto the Great, the Empire was always a federation to a lesser or a greater degree. Charlemagne created a Universal State, in other words, with roots in the old Germanic tribal system. Over time tribal chieftans turned into kings and princes in their own right; and thus the Emperor, no matter how much reverence was attached to the title, was never in the strictest sense a 'monarch.' After Charlemagne the closest they ever got to the old Roman form was as primus inter pares-first among equals-and sometimes not even that.

Beyond this, the Empire, from the very outset, was shaped around a dangerous political contradiction: that between the 'Universal State' and the 'Universal Church.' Charlemagne's Frankish empire arose at a time of papal weakness; but once the papacy began its steady ascent, from the tenth century onwards, the struggle between Church and Empire was to become one of the great defining features of the early Middle Ages. There were points when this struggle broke down into outright civil war between the Imperial faction or the Ghibellines, on the one hand, and the Papal faction or the Guelphs, on the other. The struggle reached its height during the reign of the Emperor Frederick II of the House of Hohenstaufen and Pope Innocent IV, with the Papacy emerging as the final victor.

After the death of Frederick in 1250 the whole Empire made an ever more rapid descent into the twilight, and was no longer taken seriously as an entity in European power politics. The later Emperors, from Henry VII onwards did have a distinct territorial power base, contrary to the point made by Adam, which introduced an additional element of rivalry, contributing still further to the decline.

I began with a quote, so I will end with a quote, that of Voltaire, which serves best as the Imperial epitaph-The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire.

Heil Wuss!

For the first time ever I visited the racist British National Party website; yes, I did. Why? Simply because I wanted to see if there was an official response to last week’s Question Time, a panel show in which Nick Griffin, their leader, appeared as a guest. Well, there was, a video with Griffin himself, which I imagine some of you who come here may have already seen. For those who have not it’s really quite interesting, quite revealing. He says a lot about how badly he was treated, how awful the BBC is; he says far more, albeit unintentionally, about his character. For, you see, big boys do cry, big boys do cry!

What more is there to be said on this particular subject? Well, let me see now, perhaps I can surprise you. But before I go on let me just quote a passage from Stopping Hitler, a piece I wrote earlier this year. This is how I concluded;

Violence will not stop the BNP, oh no it will not; only words will. And the words I have in mind are their own. Yes, I would allow a platform for Fascists for the simple reason that once people at large know just how simplistic their words are it will collapse from under them. That is the intelligent deduction, not the ‘lesson of history.’

So, I turned to Question Time to look not just for words-the words idiotic Peter Hain would not have allowed us to hear-but for image, for presentation and, to be honest, for a spot of good old-fashioned charisma. What did I see? Why, there he was, the Leader himself, a desperately silly little man: he was grinning inanely, he was nervous, he was trying to ingratiate himself, with his fellow panellists, the audience and the world beyond. He did not even seen to understand just how badly matronised he was by Bonnie Greer, sitting next to him. It was comically embarrassing in a way I had never expected. The figure who came to mind was not Roderick Spode, P. G. Wodehouse’s comic fascist; no, it was Uriah Heep, creepy and ever so ‘umble. Add to that the words, the words, oh, the words. Death by television, it’s the only way I can describe it. What a favour Peter Hain and the Unite Against Fascism rent-a-mob would have done him if the programme had been pulled.

Yes, he was ambushed, ‘lynched’, to use his own word, but in his position I would have expected a Spanish Inquisition. He, amazingly, did not. So, he fumbled over the most basic interrogation. He did not know why he had previously been a Holocaust denier-which he seemingly is no longer, he though the KKK was mostly ‘non-violent’ he himself is an ‘aborigine’ and so on and so wretched.

This was the Nick Griffin Show, as I previously suggested, but not in the way I ever imagined; he diminished by the moment, diminished by acutely painful degrees, painful for me to watch. He was destroyed not by the robustness of the questioning; he was destroyed by his answers, by his own words. This is not Hitler, this is not even Oswald Mosley; this truly is the fascist Mr Bean.

None of this takes away from the point that I’ve made before: that the BNP is a symptom, not the disease. It’s a symptom of the Labour government’s shameful neglect of its traditional constituency; it’s a symptom of the failure to address basic issues of social deprivation and fairness, it’s a symptom, above all, of the abject failure to control mass immigration. Nick Griffin was dreadful but Jack Straw, by his fumbled answer to this very point, was almost as bad.

It’s as simple as this: the BNP is a hard-core of fascists and racists surrounded by a ‘soft’ constituency of disillusioned voters; disillusioned with Parliament, disillusioned with government, disillusioned by the way their voice is ignored no matter how hard they shout. If a future government-a Tory government-addresses some of the issues that concern these people then I am convinced that they will turn away from the BNP with ever increasing rapidity. Few can truly be attracted to a bubbling wuss like Nick Griffin, hearing his denunciation of the ‘Marxist’ BBC as they turn to watch the dialectics of Strictly Come Dancing. I wonder how I could possibly write this because, as a white Londoner, I appear to have been ‘ethnically cleansed.’ :-))

Truly, those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make fascist.

Loving Emma

Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel by far. I love everything about it, I love the language, I love the humour, the wit, the characters; I love Emma herself for all of her conceit and all of her fallibilities. I think I understand Emma, for I almost fell into the same trap myself once, believing that one understands other people and their emotions, believing that they can somehow be managed to a desired set of ends.

I enjoyed the movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow, who was quite convincing in the lead. So I was really looking forward to the new BBC four-apart adaptation by Sandy Welch, which finished last Sunday evening. Yes, it was a free adaptation and, yes, some of the nuances of Austen’s book have been lost and the characters ‘liberalised’ in point of deportment and expression but I really loved it, loved the whole thing, not in the least put off by the curmudgeonly review in The Daily Telegraph. The soufflé rose and rose!

The cast were super. I particularly liked Michael Gambon as the fussy and hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse, and Jonny Lee Miller was a lovely and sexy-and scolding!-Mr Knightly, but Romola Gari was Emma, she was Emma as I see her; impish, mischievous, expressive, thoughtful, self-assured and scheming. In her face, her eyes alone she conveyed so much liveliness; she deserves recognition for that if nothing besides. I suppose the purist will be horrified, perhaps preferring a ‘stiffer’, less modern version, but not I. Great books and great characters always adjust to the times. I feel sure Jane would have loved this Emma for a modern age.

The production values, the period settings and the costumes were all wonderful; the whole thing was simply splendid. There will be such a gap in my Sunday evenings now. What shall I do? Yes, I know; I’ll read Emma yet again. On second thoughts, I might just go look for a Harriet Smith. :-))

Sunday 25 October 2009

King Louis, Prince Jean and The Princess of Cleves

I love keeping an eye on the political antics of our Latin cousins. I confess that Italy and Sleazy Silvio always manage to lighten a dull day but France and Super Sarkozy are not far behind. :-))

I mentioned in a recent blog (Sex Tourism and Nepotism) that the Midget put forward his twenty-three year old son Jean, a second year undergraduate, as a possible director of the prestigious La Défense development corporation. My, my; how this has blown up in his face! The obvious nepotism, the clear political corruption in advancing this hugely under-qualified frog sprog, has brought out the sans-culottes, armed with pikes, axes…and bananas! Outraged critics have rechristened the Midget as Louis XIV and his son as Prince Jean. But what they fear in the abuse of monarchical power is not that France is reverting to the Ancien Régime. No; it is, rather, turning into a banana republic. To emphasise the point demonstrators turned out in La Défense last week brandishing bananas.

We all know what happens to monarchs in France when they fail to take heed of the emotions of the mob. So, possibly anticipating a surge into the Élysée, Sarko has been pushed into a humiliating retreat. Prince Jean has been forced to withdraw his application to head the £100 million pounds-a-year corporation. Showing he has all of the razor wit of his father, the dear Prince said of the criticism that had arisen as a result of his candidature “A lot of it was excessive, a lot of it true.” There is hope for the future of France!

King Louis’ troubles do not end there. The political cloud that has descended on him over this laughable business is likely to benefit Dominique de Villepin, the former Prime Minister, and the chief defendant in the so-called Clearstream trial. However, I’d like to focus on something else, another affair that may have escaped attention here: the King, you see, has fallen out with the Princess of Cleves. Now you are about to learn something of the true comic depths of French life.

It’s widely known that there are so many areas of French economic and intellectual endeavour that are immersed in a deep torpor. The malaise is particularly bad in higher education. Only one French institution, the École Normale Supérieure, makes it into the league of the world’s top universities, compared with fourteen for the United States and seven for the United Kingdom. Concerned by this decline the President decided earlier this summer that he would introduce some Anglo-Saxon style reforms into research funding.

French academics, always long on wind and short on results, don’t like this at all. In the emerging struggle The Princess of Cleves, an anonymous seventeenth century novel usually attributed to Madame de la Fayette, has become the symbol of resistance. You see, the Midget was unwise enough to express a view on this worthy but dull monolith of French culture, saying that reading it at school was ‘pure torture’ and that only a ‘sadist or an idiot’ could have inserted a question on the novel in the civil service exams.

Sales have soared! Public readings are now commonplace. Academics opposed to reform can be seen wearing badges saying “I have read the Princess of Cleves.” I saw one of these at the Sorbonne earlier this summer. Perhaps a revolution is maturing; perhaps a new Bastille is about to fall. I shall continue to look for the signs.

In the meantime lets all join together in a song of appreciation for King Louis and Prince Jean. Boom, boom, boom…

The Basque Witch Trials

The trials of the Basque witches at Longrono, near Navarre, in northern Spain, which began in January 1609, was almost certainly the biggest single event of its kind in history. By the end some 7,000 cases had been examined by the Inquisition. The first phase ended in 1610, with a declaration of auto da fe against thirty-one of the accused, eleven of whom were burned to death. Thereafter proceedings were suspended until the inquisitors had a chance to gather further evidence, on what they believed to be a widespread witch cult in the Basque region. Alonso de Salazar Frias, the junior inquisitor and a lawyer by training, was delegated to examine the matter at length. Armed with an Edict of Grace, promising pardon to all those who voluntarily reported themselves and denounced their accomplices, he travelled across the countryside. As was usual in cases of this kind, denunciations flowed in. Frias finally returned to Longrono with 'confessions' from close on 2000 people, 1,384 of whom were children between the ages of seven and fourteen, implicating a further 5000named individuals. The evidence gathered covered 11,000 pages in all.

Contrary to the usual picture of the Inquisition, ready to believe all and every confession of wrong doing, Frias, the youngest judge in a panel of three, was highly sceptical about the whole thing, saying that he had found no substantive proof of witchcraft on his travels, in spite of the manifold confessions. More than that, he questioned the whole basis of the trials. Because of this disagreement on how to proceed, the matter had to be referred to the Inquisitor-General in Madrid. The senior judges, Alonso Becerra y Holquin and Juan de Valle Alvadro, even went so far as to accuse their colleague of being 'in league with the Devil.' Some of Frias' objections are truly remarkable, considering the atmosphere of the times, and are therefore worth quoting at length;

The real question is: are we to believe that witchcraft occured in a given situation simply because of what the witches claim? No: it is clear that the witches are not to be believed, and the judges should not pass sentence on anyone, unless the case can be proven with external and objective evidence sufficient to convince everyone who hears it. And who can accept the following: that a person can frequently fly through the air and travel a hundred leagues in an hour; that a woman can get through a space not big enough for a fly; that a person can make himself invisible; that he can be in a river or the open sea and not get wet; or that he can be in bed at the sabbath at the same time...and that a witch can turn herself into any shape she fancies, be it housefly or raven? Indeed, these claims go beyond all human reason and may even pass the limits permitted by the Devil.

Confession and acccusation on their own, Frias maintained, were not enough. It is a great pity that this simple guiding principle was not held in mind, all the way from Salem to Moscow.

The Inquisitor-General shared this view. For some time the central office of the Inquisition had been sceptical about claims of magic and witchcraft, and had only sanctioned the earlier burnings with considerably reluctance, and only because of the reported mood of panic from Longrono. As far back as 1538 the Council had warned judges not to believe all that the read in Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous witch-finding text. In August 1614 it ruled that all of the trials pending at Longrono should be dismissed. At the same time it issued new and more rigorous rules of evidence that brought witch-burning in Spain to an end, long before the Protestant north.

Lenin's Death

Lenin died from syphilis caught from a Paris prostitute. At least he did according to Helen Rappaport, a historian and author, who makes this claim in her recently published Conspirator, Lenin in Exile.

According to the official statement made at the time by the Soviet government, Lenin, aged fifty-three, died as a result of a stroke, the last of three. Rappaport bases her claim on one core peace of evidence, an assertion by Ivan Pavlov, he of the dogs, made in 1928, four years after the dictator’s demise, in which he says that the “revolution was made by madman with syphilis on the brain.” She goes on to say that the evidence is that Lenin caught the disease in 1902. It was the unspoken belief of the Kremlin doctors that this was the true cause of his death;

Pavlov knew the scientists who had been called to examine Lenin’s brain after his death in 1924 and they all concurred in this diagnosis.

This seems to me to be really thin stuff. All she has is this uncorroborated statement, made by Pavlov to one Mikhail Zernov, a fellow doctor, while they were both in Paris. The conversation was recorded in a document now held by the University of Columbia in New York. I imagine Pavlov felt secure enough, out of Soviet ears, to confide in such a fashion. He also, as a scientist and Nobel laureate, carried some unique privileges not granted to others, including, one suspects, the privilege of unorthodox views.

I know almost nothing about Pavlov’s views beyond his immediate areas of intellectual concern, but the words, the form he uses, seems to suggest a certain degree of political bitterness. Russia was on the threshold of the most traumatic period in its modern history, the forced collectivisation and the Great Purge, in which some of the scientist’s own colleagues were caught up. Pavlov may have privileges but the world of objective scientific inquiry was closing down. It was not Lenin who was mad; it was the Revolution itself, a collaboration of political gangsters.

I know how historians work and it seems to me that Rappaport has been carried away by her excitement in finding original ‘evidence’ divorced of context. Besides, and I have to say this, I simply can’t imagine the cold-blooded Lenin as a sexual being at all, can’t imagine him doing anything as lowly and human as visiting a prostitute.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Schooldays in Ancient Rome

Schooling began early in the day, usually at dawn. Primary schools were attended by both sexes, and some of the higher grammar schools were also mixed. Children from prosperous families were accompanied by a slave attendant or tutor, and perhaps also a younger slave to carry books and writing materials.

At school if the pupil worked well he was kissed by the master (gross, I know, but true!). If not he was flogged. Corporal punishment was a regular part of the school day. Some educational theorists were advanced enough to suggest that it was important to take account of mixed abilities; not so Quintilian, who argued that children were spoiled by kindness-"We ruin our children's petting and soft upbringing." One father in Roman Egypt shared this view, writing to his son's teacher, "Beat him, because ever since he left his father he has had no other beatings and he likes getting a few; his back has got accustomed to them and needs its daily dose." This view was also shared by the great Augustine of Hippo, though in the Confessions he recalls his own school days with horror. In the end, the severe but just father becomes the severe but just God.

Much of the education given consisted of cramming young heads with Greek. Some educationalists maintained that those in the social elite should begin life with Greek nurses, though others countered by saying that this would ruin their Latin accents. Once the basics had been mastered, and the pupils could read and write Latin and Greek, they moved steadily up the educational ladder, reaching the rarefied heights of subjects like rhetoric, where they would often be presented with problems like the following: The law ordains that in a case of rape, the woman may demand either the death of her assailant or marriage without a dowry. A man raped two women in one night. One woman demands his death; the other marriage. Discuss. Yes, this is a real example!

Some were inclined to poke fun at this kind of pedagogy, including Petronius, who wrote "Young men are made into fools at school; people fed this stuff can no more be sensible than kitchen workers can smell rice." But this view was far from typical, and educational relevance was not an issue of any great importance for most Romans. Even medicine had a largely unapplied and philosophical basis. The chief purpose of education was to distinguish between those who had mastered complex literary forms and those who had not. And finally, here is a list of questions and answers from a Roman school text which summed up a limited and rather gloomy view of life;

What is a Man? A short lived ghost.
What are Riches? Everyday power.
What are Words? Blindness.
What is Authority? Poverty.
What is Wealth? A ridiculous page.
What is Woman? A daily Drudge.
What is Law? Necessity.
What is Holiday? Work.
What is Death? Freedom.
What is Loneliness? Kingship.

The Death of Horst Wessel

If you know anything at all about Horst Wessel it’s probably only because he wrote the Nazi Party marching song named after him. He was murdered in 1930 in Berlin. The KPD, the German Communist Party, may have denied its involvement, but the full facts came out during the trial of Albrecht Höhler. Although the Communist Party did not officially ‘approve’ of assassination it was a tactic they indulged in quite freely.

These are the facts as I understand them. Wessel's landlady, Elisabeth Salm, was anxious to get rid of him and his girlfriend, Erna Jänicke. Salm's former husband had been a member of the Rotfrontkämpferbund, the Communist equivalent of the Sturmabteilung, and it was to them that she went to for assistance on the evening of January 14, 1930. Her appeal was well-received, because Wessel, the leader of Sturm 5, an SA section, in one of the roughest neighbourhoods of eastern Berlin, had been a source of considerable annoyance. The party had even published 'wanted' posters, though no action was taken because they did not know his exact address. With Salm's appearance they now did.

The group that went to Grosse Frankfurter Strasse that same night, where Wessel had his lodgings, consisted of Erwin Rückert, the leader of the second Bereitschaft of the RFKB, his deputy, Albrecht or Ali Höhler, a career criminal with some sixteen convictions, including one for pimping; Sally Epstein; Max Jambrowski, who told Salm that they were going to give Wessel a 'good proletarian hiding'; Joseph Kandulski, Max Zieger and half a dozen others. When they arrived at the apartment Epstein and Zieger were posted outside as sentries, while Ruckert, Höhler and the others climbed the stairs. When Wessel answered the door he was shot in the face by Höhler.

Soon after the incident the local headquarters of the KPD started to spread the story that it had simply been a quarrel between 'pimps' over the affections of Jänicke. Heinz Neumann, the propaganda chief, warned Rückert and his troop that if any of them revealed the truth they would be treated in the same fashion as Wessel. Ali Höhler, the weak link, and now a major source of embarrassment to the Party, was given financial assistance from Roter Hilfe, a Communist aid organisation, to escape to Prague; but once there he was simply dropped. Unable to support himself he returned to Berlin in early February, where he was soon arrested. During his trial, angered by his treatment, he denied the official KPD line. His accomplices were all arrested and also sentenced to prison terms.

After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 Höhler was murdered by the SA (not the Gestapo, as commonly said). Zieger and Epstein were re-tried and sentenced to death and all of the others sent to concentration camps, including Elizabeth Salm, who died at Belsen in 1945.

I’m posting the song below for the record.

The Demon King

There seems little doubt that James VI of Scotland, the future James I of England believed in witchcraft; there seems equally little doubt that he used this belief with clear political intent.

There were two things uppermost in James' mind in the early 1590s: to protect his Scottish inheritance against his cousin, the dangerously unstable and ambitious Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, and to groom himself as the most likely successor to the throne of his other cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The suggestion that Bothwell was responsible for attempting to drown the king and his new bride Anne on their voyage from Denmark to Scotland, with the aid of the North Berwick witches, suited his purpose very well. At a stroke he could remove Bothwell from the scene, and convince the wider English-speaking world that he enjoyed divine grace and sanction.

In 1592 a pamphlet called Newes from Scotland, detailing the outcome of the trials, was published in England. In her book Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland, Christina Larner argues that this pamphlet had one certain purpose, and was produced specifically with an English audience in mind. It was published, in other words, to convince the reader that God favoured James, and that he was the ordained heir to the throne of England. James was interested in these trials less out of superstition, and more to discover why such a determined attempt had failed. Answer to this was conveniently supplied by Agnes Sampson. When it was discovered that even the Devil could not kill the king, the women, so the story goes, rounded on him, and demanded an explanation. The Devil excused himself by saying "Il est un homme de Dieu-certainly he is a man of God."

It was from these nefarious experiences that Daemonologie took shape, providing additional illustration, if any such were needed, that James had insight into all demonic practices, and defence against them. It may not be of any great surprise that once the Scottish bottom was safely seated on the English throne, a new mood of royal scepticism set in, with James telling his own judges not to be too gullible in such matters!

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Thomas Charnock-an Elizabethan Magus

Another fascinating discovery of mine, the story of Thomas Charnock, an alchemist and magus from the Tudor age!

I garnered what follows from The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances Yates, Mystic Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture edited by S. Linden. There is also a useful article entitled Base Matter into Gold by Jonathan Hughes in the August 2005 edition of History Today. Hey, I even dipped into Charnock's own notes! For those who have neither the time nor the inclination for this then there are some pertinent extracts in Alchemical Fragments Copied from Thomas Charnock's Own Handriting by Elias Ashmole.

Charnock was born in about 1524 and died in 1581. He spent most of his life in Comberwich, a small village near the port of Bristol in the west of England. His unpublished notebooks are useful, not just for an understanding of Elizabethan attitudes towards alchemy in general, but for the insight they give to Charnock's life and thoughts. Apart from the usual preoccupations of his profession, he also had an amateur interest in Atlantic exploration, and in his study he had an astrolobe, maps, a globe and other navigational instruments. He rather quaintly described the difficulties he found in trying to decipher Medieval English texts on alchemy, which were as harde to my understanding as yff I had harde one rede a booke off the language off the natione which dwell in the fourth parte off the worlde named America.:))

His uncle, also called Thomas Charnock, had been an alchemist, as well as the confessor to Henry VII. Thomas' interest in the subject appears to have been stimulated when he inherited his uncle's books while in his teens. Although he married in 1562, and had two children, he preferred the life of scholarly solitude, made clear in the preamble of the treatise he wrote for Elizabeth I. He says that his pursuit of the philosopher's stone has in large measure been impeded by 'worldly necessities', and that the said stone is reserved for men who have the gift of 'solitariness.' He took this seriously enough to ask Elizabeth to allow him to carry on his experiments in the Tower of London, or another 'solitary place.' This was probably stimulated by the hostility of his neighbours, which forced him to barricade himself in his cottage. His appeal to the Queen was ignored.

His work was tiresome and demanding, requiring him, amongst other things, to keep a fire burning at a constant temperature. Quite often he would wake up in the night, troubled that things were not going well. Concerns over servants, fires, and the cost of fuel were steady preoccupations. He was also pursued by fairly constant bad luck "God send me better fortune or else I am clean discouraged and will turn from philosophy to husbandry and go and get me unto the plough." When England went to war with France in 1557 the local Justice of the Peace, who seems to have been a personal enemy, made sure that poor Thomas was forced into service. In frustration, he took a hatchet to his equipment, smashing glasses and pots alike. Nothing daunted, he was back at his experiments seven years later.

It seems obvious from the hostility he engendered locally that his neighbours had deep superstitious fears, which Carnock did much to encourage, describing himself as a magus as well as a philosopher, who had mastery of "dark and misty terms." After his death it was reported that no-one would live in his former cottage, which was "troublesome and haunted by spirits and that its owner had a reputation as a troublesome person and a conjurer."

Charnock himself was always aware of the ambiguity of his art, warning that Roger Bacon, the founder of English alchemy, had come dangerously close to to the occult, and had ultimately been unsuccessful in his quest for the stone because the Devil was his familiar. His own search for the stone proceeded in the face of one failure after another. Even so, he kept his fires burning for three years constantly, which "brought him more joy than any worldly goods." Though he constantly bemoans the frustrations of his quest, he warms any independent reader not to be deceived by surface appearances, and that he deals in allegories and veiled truths. His victory, if it can be so described, was in simple perseverance; in the pursuit of a 'truth' that remained constantly elusive. In his notebooks he might be said to have penned his own epitaph;

Here Charnock changeth to a better cheere

For the sorrow that he hath suffred many a year.

Poor man!

Blood and Wind-a Voyage into Medieval Atheism

I read a really interesting article in the BBC History Magazine (January, 2009) while sipping my morning tea! It’s called Doomed or Disinterested?, written by one John H Arnold. It concerns the degree to which some people in the Middle-Ages developed an active scepticism towards the teachings of the church.

Now, I had always known that, throughout its history, their had been dissenters and apostates within the Catholic community, though I had assumed that in the high Middle Ages such people would be more likely to embrace one heresy or another rather than outright disbelief. But many did. We cannot be sure just how many but it was a concern to those who wrote on religious questions at the time.

The question of transubstantiation, the concern that the act of faith was not enough in itself among the laity, was particularly troublesome. William of Pagula wrote that priests should not rest on the theological dogma alone, but provided more practical reasons enabling them to persuade their parishioners. The bread, he says, is not experienced as flesh and blood so that it does not provoke “horror” in those receiving it; so that “pagans” do not ridicule Christians; and because people are “not accustomed to eating bleeding flesh.” Yes, he does!

Some of the ‘miracles’ of the day were, in point of fact, conceived to overcome practical doubts about the Eucharist. In one popular tale a woman receiving the sacrament from Pope Gregory the Great burst out laughing when he declared that it was the body of Christ. When asked why she is said to have replied, “Because I heard you say that the bread I made with my own hands is God’s body.” Immediately the bread changed into the shape of a finger and the woman recovered her faith! Precious, is it not?

I suppose these cases could be taken as an example of proto-Protestantism, a belief that communion is only a symbolic act. But there are also cases of outright and simple atheism or scepticism, right across Europe. Giordano of Pisa said of this, “There are many people today who do not believe that there is another life, or that things could be better than in this one." Another wrote of those ‘unbelievers’ who are unhappy when their loved ones died because they do not believe that they will ever see them again.

My favourite example of this common-sense scepticism is that of Guillemette Benet of Oracle in southern France, who lived in the late fourteenth century. She is reported to have told her neighbours on several occasions that the soul is nothing but blood or wind. She reached this conclusion for two reasons; first when she banged her nose and noted the subsequent bleeding; and second, when she observed the death of a friend’s child, noting only the exhalation of air at the end. From this she deduced there was no heaven and no hell; no afterlife at all.

Blood and Wind. I shall write a book with such a title one day; truly I shall.

Ave Imperator-in Praise of Diocletian

Many of the Roman emperors are worthy of note, including Marcus Aurelius, my personal favourite, and Julian the Apostate, who fought a tragic rearguard action on behalf of the old religion, being overwhelmed by the new faith. I would, however, like to make special mention here of Diocletian, arguably the last truly great pagan emperor.

So, why Diocletian, what makes him any more significant than, say, Trajan or Hadrian? It is simply this: the empire established by Caesar Augustus, properly known as the Principate, was an uneasy compromise between absolutist and republican ideals. The emperor himself was only considered to be primus inter pares-first among equals-and Rome was still nominally governed on the same basis since the last king had been expelled.

The system worked up to a degree, but only insofar as there was a degree of stability and consensus over the difficult issue of succession. The most stable period of all came in the second century, when a succession of ‘good’ emperors adopted the most able candidates they could as a potential successor. But this could not last. In the third century not just the Principate but the empire itself came close to total collapse for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the inherited structural weakness. Now any ambitious general, with a few legions behind him, thought he had as much right to rule as the emperor ion Rome. Anarchy and civil war were almost continuous from the murder of Alexander Severus in 235AD onwards. It was Diocletian who brought the whole crisis to and end.

At first he appeared as just another strong man, a bit like Aurelian before him. But he quickly recognised that the problems of the empire were, first and foremost, political in nature. The emperor, he concluded, should no longer be seen as ‘one of us’, even as primus inter pares; the emperor had to stand above all. In place of the Principate came the Dominate, with the emperor as an absolute and semi-divine figure. It was a system of government which was to evolve in a fully mature form into the Byzantine Empire.

Constantine may have been the ultimate beneficiary of these changes but the true honour belongs to Diocletian, who thus stands alongside Augustus as one of the two great architects of Imperial rule.

I was hoping to say a word or two about the Diocletian Persecutions, but this is getting too long. I’ll leave that for another blog. :)

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Operation Barbarossa

When Barbarossa begins the world will hold its breath and…yawn!

It has begun, though I suspect it’s not the Barbarossa that you are thinking of, the Barbarossa invoked by my opening sentence. It is, rather, an all Italian production, a cinematic epic released under the title of Barbarossa (Red Beard), the name once given to Frederick I of Hohenstaufen, king of Germany, king of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor, who reigned in the twelfth century. But the real hero of the movie is one Alberto de Giussano, the Milanese blacksmith who, according to legend helped defeat the Imperial forces at the Battle of Legnano. Alberto is the hero because he just happens to be the symbolic figure favoured by the Northern League and by its leader, Umberto Bossi. And hereby hangs a tale.

The Northern League is best envisaged, if you can picture such a thing, as a kind of combination of the British and Scottish National Parties. Bossi and his followers, who dream of an independent state in Northern Italy to be called Pandania, have a racist antipathy to the peoples of the south, so much so that they recently threatened to form a human chain along the line of the River Po to keep out further migration northwards. But this does not stop Bossi being a chum of Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, and it does not stop him from having a seat in the Italian cabinet.

Having Berlusconi as one’s Padre padrone carries other rewards, not least of which is access to funding for favoured cultural projects; and the one project most favoured by Bossi was Barbarossa: he even managed to get a bit-part. However, this celebration of ‘northern pride’ which features such international stars as Rutger Hauer as Frederick, and Céline Cassel, a French actress, as the Empress Beatrice, is turning into a cinematic disaster, the occasion for a fresh political storm. Only in Italy!

The problem is, you see, there are simply not enough ‘Pandonians’ to make Barbarossa a going venture, and those there are clearly prefer other things. In the opening weekend it took only 441,000 Euros at the box office compared with 1.8 million for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Last week L’Espresso was suggesting that Bossi’s baby might turn out to be the biggest flop in the history of Italian cinema. Even in Erba in Lombardy, a stronghold of the Northern League, only a handful of members showed up for the opening night, prompting the local paper to say, “If the Lombards don’t go and see it, who will?”

Rai, the state television network, which partially funded the project, is also committed to showing it as a two-hundred minute mini-series. Here Berlusconi was the decisive influence in securing funding and support, telling a Rai manager, whose phone had been tapped in a corruption investigation, that “Bossi is really on at me…about this Barbarossa.” Yes, Prime Minister!

Would you like to know something about the movie itself? Well, The Observer reports that when one Roman cinema-goer was asked about his impressions he replied;

With the swirling violins, the fighting and the constant cries for liberty, it’s like spending two hours inside Bossi’s brain.

It may be that, in the light of past usage, the very name Barbarossa may now be said to carry the same curse of misfortune as…the Scottish Play. :-))

No Joke

I enjoyed a recent piece in the Daily Telegraph on Communist-era humour. Apparently the old Federal Republic intelligence services collected jokes from ‘across the wall’ as a measure of popular discontent with the Communist regime. Senior officials always looked forward to the latest compilation not just for the information revealed about life in the east but for the simple amusement value. I’ve picked up a few of these;

What would happen if the desert became communist?

Nothing for a while-and then there would be a shortage of sand.

Why can’t you get any pins in East Germany anymore?

Because they are being sold to Poland as kebab skewers.

How do you double the value of a Trabant?

Fill it with petrol.

The Trabi, the old East German car made from plastic and a prayer, was a popular source of humour. So, too, was Christmas. The holiday has been cancelled, another joke went, because Mary could not find any nappies for baby Jesus, Joseph was called up to the army and the three kings didn’t get a travel permit.

There was a huge risk in this simple democracy in action, this brief moment of personal freedom, as the Stasi, the secret police, had 91,000 employees and close on 190,000 civilian informants in a population of some seventeen million. Political jokes were always taken seriously by the authorities as evidence of subversion. People were jailed. Even so, they continued to take the risk, even joking about the dangers;

There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. There are people who collect people who tell jokes.

I think that George Orwell was wrong. Freedom is not the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. Freedom is the right to tell a joke. If that is granted all else follows.