Wednesday 9 November 2011

Traveller to an Antique Land

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Friends, Romans, countrymen, as some of you clearly know, Ana is off on another adventure! I leave for Egypt on Saturday morning and will be away until close to the end of the month; so this is my last post for a bit. I've still got a huge amount to do, the usual last minute panic. Have I got this, have I got that, is my sun screen strong enough, should I take my shorts and risk another Egyptian revolution? My, my, the perils of travel. :-))

This is another important goal for me, planned now for an age. I have it all worked out, the best laid scheme of mouse and woman, which I really hope will not go askew! The political situation in Egypt earlier this year was a bit of a worry (how dare they plan a revolution around my travel plans?), but things seem to have settled down.

So, it’s off to Cairo initially, a few days there, first to say hello to Tutankhamen, thus avoiding the mummy’s curse, as well as having a peek at the Great Pyramid at Giza. Oh, how much I would love to shuffle my way to the top, just like Harriet Pringle in the televised adaptation of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War! Will I be allowed? Possibly not, but interdicts and barriers are there to be overcome…in one way or another.

After Cairo we fly south to Aswan, our base for some further explorations: to the temples of Karnak and Luxor; to the great temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel; to the temple of Horus, the falcon god of the pharaohs, at Edfu; to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens; to Thebes, the ancient religious capital of Egypt, and the city of the dead; to here and to there and to everywhere. Can I get there by candle-light? Yes, there and back again, because my heels are nimble and light.

That’s it, then, for another few weeks. Look for me again, when the candle burns low.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Rise and Fall of an Old Reich

At the end of this week I’m leaving on a long planned trip to Egypt, one that will take me from the Great Pyramid at Giza in the north to the temple of Abu Simbel in the south, from Lower Egypt to Upper Egypt. And just to confuse you the former is the north and the latter the south! It’s the ancient Egyptian view of the world, you see, all upside down.

A lot of my extramural reading for the past while has been dedicated to books with an Egyptian theme, including Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (what a super and sadly neglected writer she is) and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, the first in the Cairo Trilogy. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is ready to be packed because I really want to read that sailing down the Nile. It will be yet another literary milestone for me, having read The Quite American in Saigon and Our Man in Havana in Havana!

But it’s the history of ancient Egypt that I really wanted to get close to. I know ‘bleeding chunks’ already; I imagine most people know something, even if it’s only smatterings about Tutankhamen, buried treasure and mummies curses! What I needed, though, was a decent overview, one that would take me through the whole spectrum of Egyptian history, which is precisely why I alighted on The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson.

This is a good book for a general audience, for people like me, coming to find a pattern in the pieces of a mosaic. The title is a little misleading, in that the Egypt of the pharaohs, beginning with the formation of the kingdom under Narmer in 2950BC, rose and fell and rose and fell and rose and fell, time and again. The wheel of history has never being better illustrated, from the Old Kingdom through the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom with several intermediate periods between.

Add to that over thirty dynasties then one begins to appreciate the sheer scale of things, the breathtaking passage of time. For me it really is sobering to think that over a thousand years separates Narmer from Ramesses II, the Ozymandius of Shelly’s poem; that Cleopatra, the final independent ruler of Egypt (actually from a dynasty of Greek interlopers), was as far removed from the founder as modern England is from the builders of Stonehenge.

At just over 500 pages Wilkinson tells his story well, in an easy and, at points, highly discursive manner. I dare say purists will find all sorts of faults but I enjoyed it. It’s the kind of book that leaves one wanting to know more, which is all to the good.

The story is a complicated one. The sheer number of rulers, dynasties, ups, downs, ins, outs and transitions tends to leave one a little breathless. I found myself continually turning back to the timeline, helpfully provided at the beginning, just to put people and events into context.

There are weaknesses. Given that religion played such an important part in Egyptian history a dedicated chapter on the main gods, forms of worship and patterns of belief would have been useful. It’s all there, certainly, but in quite a fragmented manner, scattered about like shards of pottery.

Still, all criticism aside, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt served its purpose and served it well. I now have a framework in my head which will allow me to put the traces and fragments I hope see on my travels in proper context. And that is exactly what I was looking for, a handy guidebook to one of the most beguiling phases in the history of civilization.

Monday 7 November 2011

Take a Hot Maiden

The British Library will be illuminating the dull winter months with a new exhibition of illuminations. These are not any old pictures; no, they are from the personal manuscripts of the kings and queens of England, going all the way back to the ninth century, to be shown in an exhibition called Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

The thing that fascinates me about this is that the illustrations in question, and the attendant text, were not simply intended as a diversion, or to focus the royal mind on less earthly pursuits, but as a sort of princely instruction manual, a list of dos and don’ts. Advice is given on whom to marry, what to eat and how to rule, all in the best possible royal tradition.

One of the most diverting, and amusing, is Secretum Secretorum, an adaptation of Aristotle’s avuncular advice to Alexander the Great. Dating from 1327, it was presented to the teenage Edward III by Walter of Milimete, a court cleric, and intended as a "guide to better kingship." Better kingship was certainly needed after the disastrous reign of Edward II, the king’s father, deposed and murdered, allegedly in a particularly gruesome manner.

Dear Walter, though, might have been in danger of an equally gruesome fate if some of the suggestions in his manuscript had been taken seriously. When it came to matters of the heart the text wags a misogynist finger: “May you never trust the works and services of women, and may you not commit yourself to them.” When one considers that the power on the throne at the time was Edward’s mother, Isabella, known as the She Wolf of France, who, with the aid of Roger Mortimer, her lover, had deposed and imprisoned her unfortunate husband, the cleric’s timing may not have been of the best.

In contrast there is 'the good woman', the sort of individual that the king would be wise to marry. She should be “beautiful in appearance, descended from a noble family, well-appointed in limbs, having an agreeable expression and an entire body well-adorned…you may have a majestic wife…with whom you may have sex as often, and when, you wish.” Now I expect Edward was waiting for that.

I’m so intrigued; I wonder if he followed the prescription given elsewhere for a stomach ache –“If you feel a pain or heaviness in your stomach and in your belly then the remedy is to clasp a hot and beautiful maiden or to place upon your belly a wide warm shirt”. Hmm, clasp a hot maiden or take a shirt - what a royal dilemma for a lusty prince. The belly ache, incidentally, is almost guaranteed by the culinary advice, which, amongst other things, suggests a delightful summer dish of veal and vinegar followed by sour apples.

Other details raise a smile with their unintentionally humorous pedantry. Nothing is omitted, even the best advice on how to sleep – “When…you have been restored by food…sleep mildly and rest for one hour upon your right side. Then turn to your left and upon that side finish your sleep, for the left side is cold and requires warming.” Yes, of course it does, but how would he know when his hour was up? Did he have a flunky ready by his side? “Wake up, your majesty; this side is done.” Not something, I think, guaranteed to improve the royal mood.

Other documents on show include the Regement of Princes, written by Thomas Hoccleve in the fifteenth century and presented to Henry V while he was still Prince of Wales. The prince was told that a “monarch is but a man for sure, and no matter how intelligent, he may err and sometimes make mistakes.”

Considering that Henry was to embark on a course of action that brought short term glory and long term disaster for the crown, it’s reasonable to assume that he was no more inclined to take advice from a commoner than any of his predecessors, especially commoners who give every appearance of veering between petty-minded, rule-obsessed bureaucrats and censorious busybodies!

The whole thing looks like being jolly good fun, provided always that you enjoy the pictures and ignore the advice, feeling sure that you are walking in royal footsteps from ages past.

Sunday 6 November 2011

A Lean and Hungry Look

One simply knows what a political thriller entitled The Ides of March is going to be about: treachery and assassination in one form or another; it’s the fate of Julius Caesar, it’s the soothsayer’s warning, continually given and continually ignored; it’s all in the game of politics, the world’s second oldest profession.

There are no secrets to this movie: it’s a good old-fashioned morality tale, reasonably well scripted and very well directed by George Clooney, who also plays Governor Mike Morris, a Democrat hoping to secure the presidential nomination by notching up an important primary victory in Ohio, a bleeding heart-liberal enough to make bleeding heart’s bleed! He also happens to be a moral hypocrite. Ah, there’s the rub!

The Ides of March is about back-stabbing, yes, but it is also about the loss of idealism, the discovery of self-interest, the discovery that there is politics in playing politics. In the place of the white hope comes calculating cynicism, all explored through the central character; no, not through Governor Morris, but one Stephen Myers, his second best aide, brilliantly played by Ryan Gosling. Keep your eye on his steady metamorphosis, a joy and a revelation.

Based on Farragut North, a 2008 play by Beau Willimon, who worked on Howard Dean’s frustrated presidential bid, The Ides of March could easily have descended into a cliché about crushed dreams. That it did not is a clear measure of Clooney’s skill as a film maker. As drama, as a piece of theatre, it’s very well constructed, though not flawless, something I’ll come too a bit later. But the casting could not have been better, the acting impossible to improve.

For me the highlight here was Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara, Morris’ campaign manager and Myers immediate superior. I’ve loved Hoffman ever since I saw him perform the lead in Capote, the 2005 biopic based on the life of one of my favourite writers. Here he is no starry-eyed idealist like Meyers. No, he’s a hard-bitten realist but one with a strong ethical sense, loyalty being for him the highest virtue. In the end he becomes a victim, falling, Roman-style, on his sword, a sacrifice to the unscrupulous ambition of his subordinate.

Some of the minor performances are also very good, particularly Marisa Tomei playing Ida Horowicz, a reporter from the New York Times, whose friendship with Myers is as strong as her next scoop! At the beginning it is she who introduces a note of realism, warning Meyers that his hero will “let you down. They always let you down.” A message, I think, for contemporary America, or at least for all the people who were fooled for some of the time by Barack Obama.

I say that Meyers is an idealist but, in the best tradition of tragic drama, he has a flaw in his character, one that helps move the action along. The degeneration starts when he accepts an invitation to meet with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager working for Morris’ Democratic rival. Duffy wants to bring him over, though it all turns out simply to be a Machiavellian manoeuvre of a particularly clever kind. Meyers refuses but the meeting was sin enough, the details initially withheld from Zara. The serpent is now in the garden!

The weakness in the script, the artificiality, if you like, comes with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern working on the campaign team. If we are in the garden she is Eve, she is the love interest and the temptress. Now if there is one person to stay clear of it surely has to be her. But Meyers does not and neither, for that matter, does Governor Morris. As a hook it was impossibly far-fetched. Wood’s character was completely unconvincing, oddly out of place in every sense. We are meant to believe that she is forward enough to proposition Meyers, though still naïve enough to be seduced into unprotected sex by Morris, with consequences to follow.

I suppose the part served a deeper purpose, though, exposing some of the priggish hypocrisy of American politics. In the end Meyers, now a thorough-going opportunist, even prepared to walk over the body of his lover, dead by her own hand, tells Morris in a key interview that the American electorate will tolerate lies, war and bankruptcy, but what they will not tolerate is “fucking the intern.”

In the end it’s Meyers who does all the fucking. You see, he wasn’t Brutus at all; he was Cassius, the man with a lean and hungry look. Now comes the big compromise and with that comes a deeper moral corruption. Morris in the White House will be Morris in a Whited Sepulchre.

The Ides of March is a serious film for serious people, a decent political thriller if a little lightweight at points, cerebral without being intellectual, engaging on a simple emotional level without being predictably trite. No, it’s not a great movie, but it is one that treats its audience with respect, refreshing enough in itself. Whether this was Clooney’s intention or not it’s story that should make us all a little distrustful of political purity, in whatever form it’s packaged and sold.

Thursday 3 November 2011

No Second No

It's the most famous negative in Greek history – Epeteios tou Ohi, literally the Anniversary of the 'No', Ohi Day, celebrated every year on 28 October. It marks the occasion in October, 1940 when General Metaxas, then prime minister, rejected an ultimatum from Mussolini to allow Italian troops on Greek soil or else. He replied, in laconic Spartan style, with that single word - No!

The Euro crisis, a Greek tragedy by any measure, is now in its final act, bodies strewn across the stage, the chorus wailing in the background. Of the prologue I said over a year ago on another news blog that there was a wonderful, almost divine irony in the fact that Greece, of all places, turned out to be the Achilles' Heel of the European Union, the weak spot that may in the end lead to the death of the whole mad project of a one-size-fits-all currency.

And so it has proved. For weeks now one crisis summit of European leaders has followed hard upon another, the intervals between them getting shorter and shorter, the smiles at the end, as yet another 'solution' is announced, ever more artificial and forced. The political implication of the latest bail-out deal is something else I anticipated as long ago as February of last year:

What the Greek situation exposes is the absurdity of the whole Euro project. This was a crisis waiting to happen: a small, relatively poor country building an economy on unsupportable levels of debt but unable to manage that same economy because it is unable to mange the national currency. You see, a single currency could only ever be built successfully on a unified polity, where a central authority is able to manage just about all of those areas that fall under the prerogative of a sovereign state; where a central authority is able to advance some areas while neglecting others. The Greek crisis is set to expose not only the underlying political weakness of Europe of the Euro; it's also set to expose the limits of national freedom itself. A new bastard Union is likely to arise, increasingly authoritarian in tone; not just undemocratic but anti-democratic.

Yes, a new bastard, less perfect Union, fleshed out on Greek bones, predicated on the death of democracy, predicated on the demise of the nation itself; that's what's on offer; that's the final solution.

All this looked as if it was going to change, as if some resistance was about to be offered, as if Greece discovered something of its old spirit of defiance. In a remarkable development George Papandreou, the present Greek Prime Minister, looked as if he was set to take on the role of a greater Metaxas, offering his own people a say on the devil's bargain that he signed up to last week.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, panicked; in the chanceries and presidential palaces of Europe there was panic over this dire threat of democracy by democracy. Abide by the rules of the Brussels deal, pocket Napoleon shouted, or leave the eurozone, an ultimatum echoed by Angela Merkel, Germany's Brass Chancellor. She had her own unique spin here, saying that Europe's leaders would "not abandon the principles of democracy. We cannot put at stake the great work of the unification of the euro."

Hmm, is this 'great work' anything like that of her Iron predecessor, which saw the emergence of the German Empire in the nineteenth century? Then it was said that the smaller states forced into Bismarck's 'great work' were like the fleas uniting with a dog. Is Greece a flea to be united with the Franco-German dog?

It would seem so, because, under intense pressure, not stopping short of financial blackmail, Papandreou has backed down. It looks as if his government will be ousted in a confidence vote to be held tomorrow in the Greek parliament. It no longer matters, now that the referendum has been abandoned. He is no Metaxas, just a bewildered and unhappy little man. There will be no opportunity for a second no day.

The Greeks are certainly at a crossroads in the long history of their nation. Perhaps in future they may have cause to reflect ruefully on a few lines of Byron;

The mountains look on Marathon---
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might yet be free

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Raft of the Europa

The Raft of the Medusa is probably the best known painting by Théodore Géricault, a nineteenth century French artist of the Romantic school. It’s an over the top, larger than life, extravaganza, though there is nothing at all extravagant or romantic about the story behind it.

It depicts the survivors from the Méduse, a frigate which sunk of the coast of Africa in 1816. Of almost a hundred people rescued from the shipwreck only fifteen were still alive when they were picked up almost a fortnight later, floating on a makeshift raft. Reduced to cannibalism, some of them had gone completely mad.

Oddly, or perhaps understandably, it was this voyage of the damned that came to mind in thinking about the latest, and almost certainly foredoomed, attempt to sail the Raft of the Europa to safety. There they all are, the seventeen of the euro club, wedded together by mutual interest, mutual antipathy and mutual hate. There they are, driven mad by hubris, feeding on the Greek corpse, with the Italian in the reserve, desperately hoping that they will be picked by some passing Chinese junk, the Yuan.

Are they mad or is it me? It must be me because I can see no sense at all in a country like Greece being on this voyage in the first place. Just think what would have happened in my insane world. The drachma would have hit a reef; the Greek economy would have sunk; the country would be forced to default on its debts, its credit rating hitting an all-time low.

Then the real rescue would have sailed by: the currency would be devalued; Greek exports would be competitively priced; tourists would flood in to a cheap and attractive location. Instead it’s the Raft of the Europa, an overvalued currency in an undervalued economy, a country being consumed by its partners. Are they keeping Greece afloat? No, of course not; they are keeping the lending institutions behind the whole crazy voyage afloat.

No, I’m not mad: the lunatics truly are in charge of the EU asylum. There is Spain, another country sailing on that Raft, looking as thin as Germany looks fat (this is a voyage in which some feed and some are fed upon), a country with levels of unemployment as bad as those which destroyed the Weimar Republic. Yet it’s politicians sail on, lacking the imagination to do anything else, overcome by a helpless and fatalistic mood, waiting for their turn to come.

Meanwhile we look on from the safety of our island, aware of new opportunities. Last Monday this awareness caused a little local difficulty in Parliament. You see, Comrade Dave Cameron, the Prime Minister, thought it would be a jolly good idea if the ordinary voters were allowed to determine some of the issues debated in the House of Commons, all part of the brave new Coalition vision. Back came the answer: more than 100,000 signed an online petition calling for a debate on whether there should be a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union.

It’s a measure, really, of how angry people are with politicians and parties, the Conservatives included, who promised votes on Europe, most recently over the Lisbon Treaty, only to renege when in power.

Yes, it’s all very well to have debates on subjects one wants, but Cameron most assuredly did not want this debate at this time. All sorts of threats were issued against potential rebels in his own party. The vote was lost but a sufficient number of Conservatives held to their convictions, and not just the old Eurosceptic warhorses. It’s been a sobering experience for Dave and his sycophantic clique. The writing might be said to be on the wall.

Well, at least it is according to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, who likened the MPs who voted for a referendum to graffiti artists. In the Spectator Charles Moore reminds us of the original Writing on the Wall from the Book of Daniel: “The Kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.” The kingdom was divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. The time has come to take it back.

There is the bigger picture, of course, the ‘interests of the nation’. That’s something the Europhile Economist is always happy to preach about, the ‘interests of the nation’; that's something it is preaching about in the latest issue. OK, OK, we now know, it says, that the euro was a jolly bad idea (reminder to self: dredge up previous abject praise), “to give the Eurosceptics their due” (oh, how that must have hurt), but Europe is still a jolly good idea blah de blah de blah.

As for referenda, as for any attempt at direct democracy or voter participation in the political process, beyond, that is, as cattle prodded in periodic polls, the magazine’s Bagheot column helpfully reminds us of the words of Edmund Burke. In 1774 he told his Bristol constituents, after they sent him to Parliament, that while he would ‘rejoice’ to hear their opinions he would not take instructions from them. He was his own man, you see, not Bristol’s envoy; he would deliberate the ‘national interest’, not theirs.

“But today’s backbenchers”, the article proceeds in a pompous and condescending tone, “unmistakably rejected Burke’s lofty vision of representative democracy.” Is there any wonder that people are frustrated, that democracy is in danger, real as opposed to 'representative democracy', when that same ‘lofty vision’ means that their wishes are ignored time and again? It's the arrogance I find most outrageous here, the conceit that insists that the people, the many people, who take a view contrary to the Economist should be disregarded, should not have their views heard. No wonder this insufferably dull publication is full of supine admiration for the EU; it has an editorial outlook not that much different from the Eurocrats in Brussels. Is there a subsidy here, I wonder, some kind of kickback?

Never mind me; I'm just in a mood, a mood over that ‘lofty vision’ which took us into Europe in the first place; the 'lofty vision' that has locked us into a system based, it seems to me, on a negation of the popular will, a negation of any real notion of democracy, namely, that there should be a meaningful relationship between people and their representatives, between voters and platforms, between votes and outcomes. “Are Britain’s political leaders losing faith in representative democracy?”, Bagheot asks. Are the people losing faith in any kind of democracy? That would seem to be an altogether more pertinent question, one beyond the ken and comprehension of the Economist.

Meanwhile the Raft of the Europa sails on and the junk sails by, as Germany gnaws on the bones of Greece.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Mother of Darkness, Mother of Light

Another year has past, another season gone. The witches gathered on the funeral hill, waiting at the feast, for the first winter’s day, the first winter’s sun arising in the east; for death has come for the summer time and to take the leaves of spring; Hecate, Nemesis, Dark Mother take us in.

The light has gone, the dark begins, but we still fire the darkness; I did fire the darkness. Once again we had a marvellous festival of the dead, we the living, all my sisters and all my brothers, together for another sabbat, Samhain-Halloween, the most important of them all, a celebration of the past, of the past united in the present and flowing on to the future.

I did something different this year, away from London, deep in the Surrey country. Sisters and friends joined me for a ritual, a celebration and a party, made all the more complete with a traditional bonfire. We give renewed power to the sun, to ourselves, through the winter days ahead.

I paid particular reverence to Hecate, the goddess of witches and of magic; of crossroads and new beginnings, new beginnings in new life; goddess of moonlight, of thresholds and of gates, looking in three directions at once. Although her main festival follows later in November, All Hallows is also of great significance to her, the night of the dark moon, the night of the wild hunt.

A wild journey, a wild hunt, a supper by the crossroads, a dedication by the Trivia, that’s what makes it all so exciting, these sacred nights, that sacred night past, rich in meaning, rich in significance. Bliss was it in that darkness to be alive but to be young, and a witch, was very heaven. Let’s fly! :-)

Belladonna and aconite
Give to me the gift of flight
Take me up, airborne in the night
In a dream, across the sky
A hundred-million miles high
Take me ever onwards in the night
Dark sisters join my night flight
See how far you can climb
Holt’s with us on this bright night
Ride with him ‘cross the sky
As a screaming horde
We cut the scape
The Devil’s Apple exacerbates
To the sabbat on a demon steed I ride
Across the astral plane we race
The universe my fingers trace
And I am lost forever in my mind