Thursday 29 September 2011

Veni, Vidi, Vici

I was ‘persuaded' (much pouting and nagging!)to go and see The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt’s sci-fi blockbuster presently wowing the masses. The thing is I’m not all that keen on this kind of hairy genre, all the less keen having, some time ago, seen Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, a risible remake of an 1968 original. I really did not expect much better than a silly script and actors prancing around in pantomime simian costumes.

How wrong I was; how good this movie is, making some serious points in a gripping and marvellously entertaining fashion. The special effects are a wonder to behold: I’m told that none of the apes were actually apes! The original movie, directed by Franklin J Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston, also had a serious point to make, though in that BCSE age– Before Convincing Special Effects – people striking pompous attitudes while dressed in gorilla and chimpanzee costumes makes it almost impossible to watch without laughing.

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a prequel, a foretaste of things to come, as the human world mutates into a simian one. It reflects the anxieties of this age, just as the 1968 movie did of that age. Then the preoccupation was with the big questions of racial discrimination and hatred, all against a background of nuclear Armageddon. Now the chief focus is on the dangers of biotechnology and genetic manipulation; the dire consequences, in other words, that could arise from humanity’s God-substituting arrogance.

The movie is not set in a possible future but a likely present, where animal experimentation has an accepted part to play, not only in the pursuit of science but also in the pursuit of profit. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Calafornia, researching into a cure for Alzheimer’s, a noble task made all the more noble and immediate in that Charlie, his own father (John Lithgow), is suffering from the disease, eating away at his personality and his intellect.

Less noble is the experimentation on chimpanzees captured in the wild, one of whom, Bright Eyes, gets smart and smarter, and then – apparently –goes mad, after being used as a test subject for a new wonder drug. The director of the project (David Oyelowo), much less interested in humanity than profit, orders the destruction of all the chimps when the experiment goes wrong. There is one survivor, Bright Eye’s baby, whom Rodman smuggles out of the institute to raise as his own. This chimp he calls Caesar, a hint of things to come, of Rubicons to be crossed.

Caesar, the star of the show, is magnificently played by Andy Serkis, the Gollum of Lord of the Rings, cut down in ape dimensions. What I mean to say is that this is not his first outing in simian shape; that was in the 2005 version of King Kong. So, from super-sized gorilla to super-brained chimp went the devolution! Some of the best scenes in the movie involve the emotional bonding between Caesar and Charlie Rodman, both of whom continue to be subject to Will’s now illicit wonder drug experiments.

As Caesar matured from boisterous infant to surly and inquiring teenager I was reminded of some lines from Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden. Yes, this was Caesar, half devil and half child, the greater devil when he sees Charlie being attacked in the street, launching his own reprisal, which leads to his incarceration in a kind of ape San Quentin run by Tom Landon (Brian Cox) and his son Dodge (Tom Felton), who turn out to be an unlikable and cruel pair of ape-like humans.

The end result is a prison break come ape rising (Caesar as Spartacus!), with humanity, now suffering from a bloody nose (hold that in mind for a sequel; clearly an I am Legend super pandemic is on the way) getting a bloody nose from assorted chimps, gorillas and orang-utans in a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge. At this point you should be well immersed in species treason, urging on the apes, led by a now talking Caesar. Taking a final farewell with Rodman, his erstwhile foster father, he and his ape army disappear into the forests of California. Human hubris, callousness and cruelty have carried lethal repercussions.

Yes, sure, take this message, if you will, or simply see The Rise of the Planet of the Apes as an enjoyable piece of roller-coasting escapism, a high class low class movie, with ups and downs to thrill one by turns. Caesar came, Caesar saw; I was conquered.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

The Mirror of Mediocrity

Virtually the first column I make for when the Spectator thumps through my letterbox on Fridays is that by Rod Liddle, whom I once described as the thinking woman’s chav; yes, I’m the thinking woman and he is the chav! I may not always agree with what he says but he writes in a compelling, trenchant style, invariably telling it as it is, no punches held, no holds barred, no kicks disallowed.

Last month he wrote several pieces I most assuredly agreed with, all in the aftermath of London’s August madness. I’m thinking in particular of an article headed Our children urgently need less self-esteem. In this he takes his departure from the assumption that has haunted educational and social policy for decades, namely that there is no such thing as failure, that children, regardless of potential, or lack of potential, need more self-esteem. No, they do not, he wrote, they need to have the self-esteem sucked out of them because “they have way, way too much of it.”

It begins with schooling, or what passes for schooling in the abysmal public sector. Teachers are in retreat, more and more circumscribed in what they can do and say. They dare not tread on self-esteem. Children, Liddle writes, are not corrected when they misspell, not told that they are falling short of a standard because there is no standard for them to fall short of. Emphasis on hard knowledge is giving way to soft interpretation, to a gloss all too often of simple ignorance.

Apparently a former teacher wrote to the Spectator, complaining of the climate of lies in which “children believe that they can get away with anything.” In other words, if anything goes wrong in their lives it’s someone else’s fault: their teachers, or the police, or society. They are the victims of an educational philosophy based not on learning and the discipline of learning, not on what is right and what is wrong, but ‘bringing out’ even if what is brought out is arrant rubbish, all choices being equal. Here, Rod, speak for yourself;

This is a statement of what is wrong with our schools, but it is not much of one, and it exists alongside the insistence that any form of elitism must be wrong by definition, because all outcomes are sort of perfectly OK.

This is the kind of thing that really makes me mad, this lowest common denominator approach to life, the celebration of idiocy and the damning of excellence. I believe in elites; I do not accept for a moment that we are all born equal; some are meant to be lavatory cleaners just as others are meant to be rocket scientists.

We have, if you like, a kind of Brave New World which serves neither cleaners nor scientists, for all are reduced to a lumpy medium. There are no Alphas any more and no Epsilons; just a mass of undifferentiated Gammas. It’s the world of ever increasing academic inflation, a world in where university entrance is believed to be a right rather than a privilege, the world of Big Brother, and I mean the ghastly TV show, holding up the mirror of mediocrity, a reflection of what we have become

I’m offering Rod the final word with thanks for the inspiration, thanks for telling it like it is. Right on, comrade!

So by my reckoning the last thing we want is top raise the self-esteem of the inner city kids who might one day end up smashing down their local JJB Sports shop and nicking the trainers. None of the hooded imbeciles I heard seemed terribly short of confidence or self-assurance or self-esteem; it oozed out of them like pus, along with self-righteousness. They still do not think that they have done anything wrong; they are unfamiliar with the concept that something can be ‘wrong.’

Tuesday 27 September 2011

The Manufacturer, his Wife, her Angel, and his Whore

I’m about to write a review of a novel I finished at the weekend. First I want to say a word or two about book reviewers, or rather about the Grub Street hacks that George Orwell conjured up in his essay Confessions of a Book Reviewer. I’ve no idea if this is an accurate portrait or not, but the brush strokes are bold and the colours vivid.

There he is, that poor debased soul, paid by the word, sent a package of books, some of impossible length, all to be dissected within the tightest possible deadline. It’s important not to be too negative because the reviewer’s income, and part of the income of the paper or journal he writes for, depends on the goodwill of publishers and the indulgence of readers. So, out come the clichés, all marching to order:

Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases — ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc. etc.’ — will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetizing books will have arrived by post. So it goes on. And yet with what high hopes this downtrodden, nerve-racked creature started his career, only a few years ago.

I rarely come to books on fist publication. By the time I buy my copy - most often in paperback - they have been gutted and filleted, with the choicest cuts laid out, as on a fishmonger’s slab, across the outside and inside covers. Nothing negative, you understand; no, it’s hyperbole here, superlative there, all slightly hysterical stuff about the best book ever written.

Sometimes it becomes laughable in the weight of sheer absurdity. A year or so ago I read The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Second World War epic, a grossly overrated novel which one reviewer, in a transport of banal stupidity, compared with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Now I hold another in my hand, Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, the book I've finished, a novel of Victorian times, which might conceivably have appeared under the title The Manufacturer, his Wife, her Angel, and his Whore. The reference here is, of course to The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, a movie directed by Peter Greenaway.

The praise is lavish, all the best fillets from the most glowing reviews. It’s ‘a cracking read’, ‘wildly entertaining’, ‘unbelievably pleasurable’, ‘a masterpiece’, ‘an epic’, ‘extremely sophisticated’, ‘alluringly readable’, and so on and so blah and so blah. Some of the reviewers are named, not all Orwell’s literary proletariat by any means.

Yes, I came late, and I confess a certain weary cynicism has set in, a strong temptation to shout “Look, see; the emperor has no clothes; he’s naked”, all in my childish naïveté. No, what I will say is that this is an indifferent big book, over eight hundred pages, with a good small book struggling to get out.

So, there you have it, the little girl’s view: The Crimson Petal and the White is overlong and overwritten, a simple theme that carries far too much weight, a Gothic cathedral without the flying buttresses. Careful; it might just collapse in on itself. Once the critical adulation and the hype have finally passed away I’m convinced that it will pass into the literary canon as just another good bad book.

I came to it lately, as I have said, and via a BBC adaptation shown earlier this year, which I enjoyed immensely. A reading of the novel managed to tell me little more than the Beeb dramatisation did in four hours, which might tell you something about self-indulgent writers and lazy editors!

My goodness, here I am, a few hundred words later and I’ve yet to say anything about the contents or the style of Faber’s magnum opus! It’s a Victorian novel; that is to say it is Victorian in style as well as in theme and content, the sort of leisurely exploration that might have been written in that age, though with forms of language and licence allowed by our less censorious times.

The author is present himself as a sort of tour guide, holding high his umbrella for the sheep, sorry, readers to follow on – “If you are bored beyond endurance, I can only offer my promise that there will be fucking in the very near future, not to mention madness, abduction, and violent death." Now, who could resist that? Actually, it isn’t really a ‘dirty book’, Bleak House free from Victorian forms of restraint. In some ways it’s quite coy, fucking quickly fucked, with none of the excess of the actual underground literature of the time.

For a big book there is surprisingly small cast. There is William Rackham and his wife, Agnes, mad, morbid and neurotic; Mrs. Rochester not dangerous enough to be confined in the attic. There is Sugar, the prostitute who becomes his mistress and then, with an abrupt fracture in verisimilitude, the governess of Sophie, his neglected daughter. There is morbidly religious Henry, William’s older brother, and Emmeline Fox, the widow on a mission, whom Henry wants to join in spiritual or carnal union, though he has difficulty in making up his mind which. Then there are the incidentals, like the rather sinister Doctor Curlew, Emmeline’s father, Mrs. Castaway, Sugar’s heartless mother, and Bodley and Ashwell, William’s disreputable friends, a sort of Mutt and Jeff act joined, seemingly, at the hip, the one as absurd as the other.

I persevered right to the end; I always persevere unless a book is truly dire. The Crimson Petal and the White is far from that; it’s just overblown and overhyped. Agnes is mad, though why she is mad, or the source of her mania, is never revealed. I actually lost all interest in her quite early on, and why Sugar felt compelled to read her tiresomely dull diaries quite escaped me.

It was on page 657 of the book where everything seemed to fall into place. Sugar, the Crimson Petal, is working her way through the said diaries, dairies that Agnes, the White Petal, has buried in the garden of the Rackham house –“She reads a page, two pages, two and a half pages, but the Agnes Rackham revealed in them is an intolerable irritation, a vain and useless creature whom the world would not miss for an instant if she were removed.” In my only marginalia I note that that would seem to be the key to the whole novel!

The more I write the more negative this is becoming, which wasn't really my intention when I started. Now I was tempted to write that The Crimson Petal and the White is a vain and rather silly book, but it’s not; it’s actually quite good in parts, rich in period detail, a tribute to better writers, better books and a better age. Faber is a good writer, just not a very good one, a good story teller, just not a very good one. To me his Victorian-tribute novel reads like the work of a kind of Daisy Ashford, trying to imitate an adult world with results that are both amusing and ever so slightly ridiculous. I agree with one of the reviewers on Amazon. I, too, would rather have Dickens, even without the swearing…and the fucking.

Don’t expect to see any of this across the dust jacket of a future edition!

Monday 26 September 2011

Reflections on a Great Man

On Mamayev Kurgan, the hill overlooking the Russian city of Volgograd, the former Stalingrad, there stands an enormous statue of a female figure wielding a sword, raised into the sky. This is The Motherland Calls, commemorating the epic struggle for national survival at the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the pivotal moments of the Second World War. On the wall leading to the mausoleum underneath the statue you will find carved in huge letters the following words;

An iron wind hit them in the face, yet still they came on. A superstitious dread must have seized the foe: ‘Were these men really mortal?’

Inside a Russian soldier answers in letters tooled in gold around the base of the dome;

Yes, we were mortal indeed, and few of us survived, but we all carried out our patriotic duty before holy Mother Russia.

Neither outside nor inside the monument will you find out who wrote these words. If you ask the guide they give a general answer or simply pretend not to know. Actually, they are the from In the Direction of the Main Attack, an article by Vasily Grossman, published in Red Star on 20 November, 1942, the day after the Russian counter-offensive at Stalingrad began.

Grossman was one of the greatest of all war correspondents, particularly popular with the soldiers - officers and enlisted ranks - simply because he wrote in honest, straight-forward and gripping terms, free of bombast and the kind of inflated hyperbole usually favoured by the Soviet press. He had that rare talent only granted to the very best journalists – an understanding of the importance of detail, of the small significances overlooked by those who have been mesmerised by the ‘big picture.’

In addition he had a huge amount of personal integrity, a commitment to honesty and a commitment to the truth. It was this that lead to a steady distancing from the Soviet state, from a system based on ugly lies and blatant hypocrisy, moral corruption of the worst kind. That’s why his name is not mentioned on the Stalingrad monument, why he is still a figure that incites a degree of disapproval in Putin’s Russia, a country which, once again, sees virtue in the likes of Stalin and – for the love of God – Lavrenti Beria, the one-time head of the KGB, that jackal of the human race.

Grossman was so much more than a mere reporter. He is a great novelist in a country of great novelists. Last year I read Life and Fate, his master work set during and immediately after the Second World War. I was overwhelmed by the experience, not having previously been acquainted with any of his work, an omission I have since made good. This novel, one of sweeping vision, is now being serialised by BBC Radio in a week-long celebration of Grossman’s work.

During the war Grossman continually sought solace in Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace. The title of his own novel is in deliberate homage to Tolstoy. What Tolstoy did for the Patriotic War against Napoleon Grossman did for the Great Patriotic War against Hitler. Both men created Homeric epics for the age.

But of the two, though it some will consider it sacrilege to say so, I think Life and Fate is the greater, simply because the author is less intrusive, or less obviously intrusive, than Tolstoy, who offers extended and rather tiresome reflections on his own personal philosophy of history, interventions that interfere with the books narrative flow.

Life and Fate seems to me to be just as sweeping but a lot more human at the level of detail. It’s also the most biting indictment of Stalin and Stalinism that I have ever read or am ever likely to read. This was a book so explosive that it was actually ‘arrested’ by the KGB, notwithstanding the fact that it was submitted for publication during the period of Khrushchev’s so-called thaw in the early 1960s. But one copy remained undetected, finally being published in the West after Grossman’s death.

Although the reaction was initially quite muted, the reputation of the novel, and of Grossman as a writer, has grown steadily over the years. Life and Fate is not simply about war or politics or struggle or treachery or disaster or adversity or triumph; it’s a book which celebrates truth and kindness, held up as the greatest standard of all, greater than the smelly littlie orthodoxies, as George Orwell put it, that contended so hard in the last century for the human soul.

Sunday 25 September 2011

I Give you Che Juju

I can remember the moment exactly, the moment when my suspicion of Nelson Mandela, the former terrorist who became South Africa’s living saint, spilled over into outright dislike. It was 2005, at the end of a Make Poverty History rally in London’s Trafalgar Square, where Bob Geldof, the boom town rat and abject acolyte, declared him to be president of the world. Seemingly the world agrees, at least in the shape of the United Nations, which launched 18 July, Saint Nelson’s birthday, as an international day in his honour.

If only Mandela could have done for the world what he and his cohorts in the African National Congress (ANC), a party seemingly set to rule in perpetuity, have done for South Africa. What did they do, what have they done? Why, drawing on the observation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they stopped the gravy train of corruption only long enough for them to get on.

If anything the situation for a great many in the black community is even worse than it was in the days of the old apartheid state. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but that’s OK because a lot of the rich now have black faces, so it must be better, this inequality of opportunity, this rainbow kleptocracy.

Yes, just as life gets better for President Jacob Zuma and his ANC cronies it gets worse for the majority of ordinary South Africans, black and white alike. Under the old regime infrastructural services for the black majority were bad, that’s true, but that has to be better than virtually no services at all; for no service is what they are getting.

Amazingly some 80% of South African municipalities are now bankrupt due to misspending spurred on by the demon of corruption. Power shortages and the abysmal state of repair of many of the public roads have made the problem even worse, all this in a country with crippling rates of personal taxation.

Somebody has to be blamed for this; some scapegoat has to be found. Not the corrupt, inefficient and venal ANC, absolutely not; rather there is an easier target, the target favoured by Julius Malema, head of the ANC’s Youth Wing. It is they who are to blame. Who are they, you may wonder? They are the whites, the people, according to Malema, who “stole our land”, who are “criminals and should be treated that way.”

Malema, widely known as Juju, was not so long ago the butt of national humour, after the school results of the ANC’s leadership were leaked on the internet, showing him to be particularly dim. Bad Juju may be an academic dud but he is not stupid. He’s managed to carve a nice little niche for himself as the ANC’s number one demagogue and rabble-rouser. He is the new voice of the townships, the voice of the dispossessed, labouring under the burden of frustrated hopes, labouring under the disappointments of a rainbow nation that has made them even poorer than they were under apartheid.

It’s no longer possible to blame past injustices for present wrongs; no, present wrongs are all the fault of white people, or those white people who still own businesses and farms. Malema, looking to the example of Zimbabwe, where his hero Robert Mugabe has all but destroyed a once flourishing economy, is calling for the expropriation of white-owned mines and land without compensation.

Some may consider this as all so much verbiage, but Malema, a power to be reckoned with, has been suggested as a future president of South Africa, even by the present incumbent. So, if you want to know South Africa’s future look to Zimbabwe’s present, look to the viscera of a goose, plundered in a futile search for a horde of golden eggs.

This radical, this darling of the masses, recently took to sporting a Che Guevara-style beret, declaring that “Cuban revolutionaries should be saluted. Because of their ideological clarity and willingness to fight, millions were released from colonial subjugation”. The huddled masses yearning for more of the good life, any of the good life, lap up this kind of stuff. But, as Rian Malan wrote recently in the Spectator, they are poorly educated and unlikely to know that an illiterate Johannesburg gardener earns more in a day than the average Cuban does in a month

Let’s look a little more closely at Che Juju, racist and revolutionary. Beret or not he is no aesthete, no paragon of virtue, no sea-green incorruptible. “He poses as such a figure”, Malan writes, “but in person he resembles nothing so much as a capitalist porker grown fat on shady dealings” Pretty much in keeping, then, with the tone being set by the rest of the ANC, South Africa’s oligarchy in perpetuity.

Apparently he earns around $5000 a month as president of the Youth League, a decent income, beyond the dreams of his rag-tag army, but nowhere near enough to explain his lavish life-style. Fiona Forde, an Irish journalist, recently published An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the ‘New’ ANC, in which she details his considerable assets. He has more than eight known properties, including a farm and a $2million mansion in Johannesburg. He recently demolished one house valued at $700,000, to be replaced with one at an estimated cost of $2.8million, complete with a bunker (Hitler style?)

His expensive tastes run to designer suits, several Breitling wristwatches at $17,000 each and Luis Vuitton manbags. All gifts from friends, who also offer him the use of several luxury cars, he told Forde. Not friends and comrades from the townships, one assumes. This self-styled “economic freedom fighter” is now being investigated by the revenue services, the office of the public protector and the elite crime-fighting unit known as the Hawks.

On this evidence, and other examples like it, South Africa is a predatory state on its way to becoming a banana republic. That’s not my view, well it is, but they are not my words. They are the words of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Ironically, while he makes life better for himself, Malema’s power-hungry demagogy is making life even worse for his benighted and resentful supporters. His rhetoric about nationalisation and property seizures is frightening off foreign investment. According to a recent UN report, South Africa’s share of foreign direct investment fell 70% last year from 2009. That same year it overtook Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor. Unemployment increases still further, particularly among the young; resentment increases, hatred increases; Juju, the ‘saviour’ of the poor, waxes fat and wealthy on the results

Meanwhile, at rallies, Malema and his supporters like a rousing chorus or two of Shoot the Boer, a song from former days which incites ‘hate speech’, so South Africa’s Equality Court ruled recently. But the singing goes on as, sadly, does the practice. In one of the most horrific examples, Attie Potgieter, a white farm manager, was stabbed and slashed more than 150 times, with implements as varied as a machete and a garden fork. The pathologist concluded that he had been “tortured to death.” His wife and three-year-old daughter were killed with a single bullet in the backs of their heads.

Potgieter and his family now join more than a 1000 others from white farming families who have been killed since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, on average 70 a year. These are the official figures. The true number is calculated to be closer to 3000. But that’s just part of the picture in a country that now has one of the worst crime rates in the world, a country were 21,000 people are murdered and 52,000 women raped every year.

That’s the world Nelson Mandela was president of in time past; that’s the world that Julius Malema may be president of in time to come. You may care to think of that next July when you celebrate, at the behest of the UN, the achievements of Geldof’s tawdry saint.

This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. . . . Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Islands of my Dreams

My head and heart are still full of Peru…and Bolivia. Yes, we went to Bolivia as part of our Inca quest, our search for the sun and the sister moon. I’m getting too far ahead, though, because I want to say a word or two about the lovely white city of Arequipa and the misty mountain beyond, the lair of a fire god!

After Machu Picchu I was more physically, and spiritually, exhausted than I had anticipated. I’m fit, we both are, but the altitudes, the distance and the exertions, coupled with impression building on impression, really meant that we had to spend a couple of extra days in Cuzco in recovery. Since Lake Titicaca was the next big objective we almost decided to leave out Arequipa altogether. I’m so glad we did not. The recovery was quick and the flight short.

Arequipa is a super place, the second city of Peru, right in the bosom of the Andes. And there really is a Misty Mountain – El Misti, the volcano in the distance. This is not my first volcano – I’ve bagged several – but it is the one closest to my Platonic ideal, to what I imagine is everyone’s idea of what a volcano should look like, a snow-capped perfect cone. Arequipa’s colonial-era buildings were constructed using volcanic sillar, pearly-white in appearance, giving it the nickname of White City. The churches, the mansions and the Plaza de Armas all shine with this material.

We lunched there, in the arcades of the Plaza de Armas, looking out on to the huge cathedral, which takes up the whole of one side. The Basilica Cathedral, much knocked about by earthquakes through time, the most recent ten years ago, is impressive but to my mind not nearly as impressive as the Santa Catalina Convent, so long isolated from the outside world. It’s almost like a citadel, a city within a city, one which has completely altered my image of the austerity of cloistered life! We were fortunate to be there on a Tuesday evening, one of the two in the week when the place is illuminated by torches and candles, a magical effect.

So, back to Cuzco and on to Puno by the shores of Lake Titicaca, another magical sight, with water as blue and as deep as the sky. Puno itself is not massively interesting but the lake was attraction enough. We went sailing though I decided to avoid the floating reed islands of Los Uros, too horribly spoiled by tourism. That’s the paradox, is it not; people like me come to these places in wonder only all too often destroying the wonder in the process. At least I hope I come with a sense of reverence, not doing too much damage to local customs and mores, eating what local people eat and respecting what local people respect.

Now I know you have probably heard this heaps of times but Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. There we were, floating along at almost three times the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain. Thrilling, yes it was, but cold, oh, so cold, especially at night.

I would have liked also to have visited the funeral towers of Sillustani but time was beginning to bite at our heels; so on to the bus, on to Copacabana and on to Bolivia. This was an alteration to our original plan (by now Cartagena was totally out of the question) but Titicaca is the sacred heart of the Incan civilization and the sacred heart of the sacred heart can only properly be visited from the Bolivian side, with easy access to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna – the Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon.

Isla Del Sol is not just the largest island on Lake Titicaca it was also the most revered holy site in the Incan Empire, the legendary birthplace of their civilization. It was here that Inti, the Sun God, was born. It was also where Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, the Inca Adam and Eve, came to life. Manco Capac and his sister-wife then travelled to Cusco, building a temple dedicated to their father, Inti, and founding the Inca civilization – the Sun in splendour.

We decided to avoid the normal tour boats, which only allow one an hour or two at most on the island, instead hiring our own craft, spending overnight at Yumani on the southern side of the island. I particularly appreciated the welcome from the Inca at Yumani harbour!

So on up the Inca Steps on our way to the ruins at Chincana on the north of the island by way of Titicaca – the Rock of the Puma – after which the Lake is named. There is just so much to see across the islands, impossible to take in, really, in the few days we spent in Bolivia. Having been to the Sun I also went to the Moon, the nearby island, which has the remains on an Incan nunnery, an absolute must see for me!

Anyway, having done most of the things I wanted to do we journeyed on to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, for an overnight stay. Alas there was no proper time to explore this mountain city, for in the morning we flew back to Lima for the onward connection to Heathrow, England, home and beauty. Goodnight Peru, goodnight Bolivia, goodnight to the Sun and the Moon and the islands of my dreams. Good morning Egypt. :-)

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Bridge of Sighs

I first read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, when I was sixteen or thereabouts. What relevance is that; why does it matter what age I was? Let me defer the answer to that question until I get a little deeper. I’ve now reread it, in situ, so to speak, in Peru, where the action of this brilliant little novella is set. I reread it, occasionally pausing for reflection, looking out over the distant Andes.

It begins with a tragedy: at noon on Friday 20 July 1714 the old Inca bridge between Lima and Cuzco broke “and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.” News of the disaster spread across Peru, emphasising the mutability of all things. For the Bridge of San Luis Rey, named after Louis IX, the king-saint of France, was believed to be among those things that would last forever, that its collapse was unthinkable.

One man witnessed the unthinkable – Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary from Italy. There are bigger question to be answered here, questions about God’s purpose, questions about destiny. Poised between the age of faith and the age of reason, the earnest friar asks one central question: why did this happen to those five people? He believes that theology can be set on the same basis as the exact sciences, that it is possible to read the mind of God;

If there is any plan in the universe at all, if there is any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.

Ironically Juniper’s researches were eventually to lead to his own death as a heretic, hardly surprising when one considers that there is a strong tinge of Calvinist predestination in his intellectualism.

That’s the thing about The Bridge of Saint Luis Rey: not only is it a poignant story beautifully told with great economy of prose, with words of poetic intensity, but it’s also, on another level, a light polemic, a repost to the strict beliefs of the author’s own father;

…the central idea of the work, the justification for a number of human lives that comes up as a result of the sudden collapse of a bridge, stems from friendly arguments with my father, a strict Calvinist. Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God's 'Caritas' which is more all-encompassing and powerful. God's love has to transcend his just retribution. But in my novel I have left this question unanswered. As I said earlier, we can only pose the question correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way

The friar, looking for cosmic answers, only finds individual lives, people who are imperfectly perfect; people like Dona Maria, the Marquesa de Montemayor, and her servant, Pepita; Esteban, the earlier death of whose twin almost drives him to suicide; Uncle Pio and Jaime, the young son of Camila Perichole, Peru’s most famous actress.

Beyond the dead, whose lives are explored in compelling vignettes, three in the major key, the story touches on the life of Perichole herself and her relationship with all of the central characters, especially Uncle Pio, the man who discovered her in the first place and does all he can to nurture her talents; who loves her, teaches her, spurs her and serves her all at the same time. There is Madre Maria del Pilar, the Abbess of the Convent of Santa Maria Rosas de la Rosas, where Pepita, Esteban and his brother Manuel grew up. And there is Dona Clara, the estranged daughter of the Marquesa de Montemayor, for whom she is only able to express her love at a distance, in letters that are destined to become classics of Spanish literature. You see there are other bridges here, bridges that remain unbroken, bridges in the heart.

I’ve seen reviews where the claim is made, somewhat repetitively, that the central theme of the novella is the problem of why good things happen to bad people. But that seems to me to be missing the whole point. People who think like that haven’t really got beyond the bafflement of Father Juniper.

There can be no conclusions here; there are no conclusions beyond the truism that the mind of God is inscrutable, that nothing can be read into individual destinies. The central theme is not about the vagaries of fate or predestination, but love and the search for meaning in love. That’s the pattern; that’s the key, summed up in the final words of, words heart-gripping depth and beauty, thoughts given to Madre Maria;

But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and then forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Yes, I read this when I was sixteen. Here I am, almost ten years later, a little more polished, perhaps, a little sharper in my understanding of some of the core philosophical and theological issues, but really not a step beyond that final simple truth which moved me to tears.

In an Amazon review – generally a good one – the writer, responding to the incomprehension of an earlier contributor, said that understanding requires maturity, that overall this is a book better read when one is 60 rather than 16. Prior to this he wrote that the author’s conclusion was ‘unsatisfactory’.

If Wilder had written a book three times as long, if he had taken the path of Friar Juniper, if he had elaborated on questions of causality and chance, of will and destiny, he would have moved further from the truth, not closer. I’m glad I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey when I was sixteen and not sixty.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

On the Trail of the Sun

Up along the hostile mountains,
where the hair-poised snowslide shivers --
Down and through the big fat marshes
that the virgin ore-bed stains,
Till I heard the mild-wide mutterings
of unimagined rivers,
And beyond the nameless timber
saw illimitable plains!

Well, here I am. I’ve been there and now I’m back again. We flew in from Lima earlier this afternoon. I’m so tired, not having slept at all to ward off the effects of the dreaded jet lag. But before going to bed I simply have to record my impressions – and publish some of my pictures - while it’s all fresh in my mind; while the after-image of the Sacred Trail, the crossing of Dead Woman’s Pass, my first sight of Machu Picchu, the citadel of the gods, a greater Olympus, is still at its most vivid.

At the risk of sounding silly I really have to say that I’m finding it most awfully difficult to find the right words. Perhaps I should have left this until the morning, or to a time when I’m less tired and emotional, but I can’t. All I can say is that some of the things that I’m getting ready to write about really can’t be described; they have to be experienced. If you can go go, make it one of the objectives of your life, one of the things you simply have to do before eternity closes the gates forever. See, I told you – tired and emotional!

I’m rushing too far ahead. After arriving in Peru, just over two weeks ago, though it seems much longer, we spent several days exploring Lima, the capital founded by Francisco Pizarro, the bastard who overthrew the Inca Empire. No, I’m not being judgemental; he really was a bastard in the proper sense of the word! There is some really super Spanish colonial architecture in the old centre of the city, including the Cathedral of Saint John. We stayed in the Miraflores district, which reminded me slightly of the Zona Rosa in Mexico City, with the same concentration of bars, clubs and restaurants. Ah, that night, those stars and all those pisco sours!

On the subject of restaurants I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Peruvian cuisine. We had a variety of meat and fish dishes but my favourite by far was the ceviche of sea bass and prawns. I was told by some of the locals that we made friends with that not only is ceviche the national dish of Peru but the government even declared an official holiday in its honour! Ours came with a variety of accompaniments, including a hot sauce, (potentially lethal in large helpings!), corn on the cob, sweet potatoes and fried corn crenels. And then there is guinea pig, yes, guinea pig, all replete with the little claws and snout. I had a bit of a struggle with this, remembering the class pet in my junior school. But we had had a long day; I was hungry, it looked great and smelled wonderful. What did it taste like? Chicken, that’s what. Doesn’t every white meat taste like chicken in the end? Well, we have no other basis for comparison.

I have to discipline myself or this is going to become too horribly long. There were so many things I did, visiting wonderful museums and nature reserves; I was even able to test my skills as a hunter using a traditional blowpipe. I was on target, not too bad for a beginner. In the Lunahuana valley to the south of the capital we did a spot of canoeing and white water rafting. But the heart of the matter came with Cusco and beyond. There my serious hunt for the Incas began.

Cusco itself is a wonderful place, well worth exploring, this one-time capital of the Inca Empire. Again there is some impressive colonial architecture but it was impossible for the Spanish to wipe out all trace of the past and of the Incas, who have left their mark everywhere, structures so well-built that they even withstood the assaults of earthquakes. The Street of Twelve Sides is a marvel; that’s all I can say.

Beyond there were deeper truths to be told, footsteps to follow, places unseen and unspoiled by Pizarro and the Conquistadors. It’s now a hundred years since Hiram Bingham, an American archaeologist very much in the Indian Jones mould (actually I think most of the pathfinders were), discovered Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, high in the Andes and the clouds. Actually he wasn’t the first; others had been before him. What he did do, though, was to bring this marvel to the attention of the world.

Most people now visit this unique site come by the train named after Bingham but we took the route on foot, pass and package obtained well in advance. My boyfriend and I joined a small party of fifteen, people from all across the world, accompanied by a truly knowledgeable guide and some hardy and perpetually cheerful porters, who advanced rapidly ahead, loaded as they were, to prepare camp sites and food; and my, oh, my, how welcome this was, how glad I was to see them.

The Trail is not long, only twenty-five miles or so; I’ve walked further in a single day. No, it’s not long; it’s just up and up and up! One really needs to be reasonably fit. The ascents are quite difficult at points. Frequent rest stops are needed to allow time for acclimatisation in the thin air of the mountains.

What mountains they are, what heights and what drops, what a variety of terrain. At Warmiwañusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass, so called because the terrain resembles a woman lying on her back, I felt a bit like a dead woman myself! Hardly surprising, given that this is the highest point on the path at almost fourteen thousand feet above sea level, the highest I’ve ever been without wings. Not only high but really wet, because here the rain was unrelenting. It was chilly, too, partly because of the height and partly because September is still the Peruvian winter.

There were two more passes to come, so up we all were at dawn the following morning for a march downwards into the valley of the Pacymayu River. On and on, past increasingly splendid Inca remains and through the most breathtaking cloud forest, trees overgrown with moss and behind mountains topped with snow.

How can I not feel such huge respect for the vanished Inca civilization, for people who laid out roads and constructed staircases at such altitudes? With the stairways, storehouses and tunnels increasing as we drew ever nearer Machu Picchu I was reminded of one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon verses, written by a poet marveling at the ruins of Roman Bath, reflecting that it must have been built by some unearthly power, a race of giants.

To be able to get to Machu Picchu by sun rise meant getting up at five in the morning, not easy when one has not fully recovered from the previous day’s exertions. Walking in the dark and the mist, we made for the Sun Gate of Intipunku. The dawn came, the dark went but the mist did not, at least not initially. I was prepared to be disappointed but my solemn prayer to the great Sun God was delightfully answered.

The wind scattered the clouds; the sun broke through in triumph. There it was, between two mountains, the lost and found city of the Incas. Since the days of Bingham thousands upon thousands of people have seen this marvel. But we are each, in a way, a first, a pathfinder, an explorer; I saw this with these eyes, my eyes; I absorbed it with this mind, my mind. For almost half and hour I did not want to talk, I did not want to take pictures; I just wanted to look.

I must go to bed now and I haven’t even told you about the rest of our trip, about visiting the beautiful city of Arequipa or sailing on Lake Titicaca, so far as Bolivia. I did not make it to Colombia, though; there was simply too much to see and not enough time to see it.

I will just finish by saying that we made some new friends in Cusco, Peruvian people who told us about Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, celebrated in the city each year around the summer solstice. It’s an ancient ceremony in honour of the sun god Inti, one of the most venerated in the Inca pantheon, one who bears a strong resemblance to the Roman Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Suppressed by the Spanish in 1572 as a pagan celebration opposed to the Catholic faith, the Inti Raymi was revived in 1944 and is now an annual event, days of music and dance honouring the god and marking the origins of the Inca in the bowers of the sun. With the intention of returning I post this brief anthem.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Ana’s Road Goes Ever On

Well, it’s that time again: I’m off on vacation! I’m doing something slightly different this year, a two-stage holiday, a voyage into pasts separated by time and distance. On Monday I’m flying of to Peru to search for the Incas. I’ve been so keen to see Machu Picchu in particular for such a long time. I’ll be away for just over two weeks, possibly, if time allows, visiting Cartagena in Colombia as a side trip. I have friends at university who live there.

Then comes October and the new term, a brief punctuation because in November I’m off again for another two weeks, this time to Egypt and the pharaohs. I already have a detailed itinerary worked out, which will take us from Cairo to Aswan and Luxor, into the hot valley of the Nile and the even hotter valleys of the kings and queens of ancient Egypt. Like Harriet Pringle in Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War series of novels I intend to view the whole scene from the top of a pyramid if I can!

So, bye, bye for now; see you later. :-)

Roads go ever ever on
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.