Sunday, 31 March 2019

The Complex Business of Kindness II

The talk given in Budapest  at the Matthias Corvinus Collegium conference on migration by Fr. John Bogna Bakeni – Secretary General of the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, Nigeria and Rev. Fr. Christopher Bologo – Chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria was impossible to transcribe, as they referred constantly to supporting slides; a verbatim transcription makes little sense without the slides to accompany it. However, the salient facts they provided are worth reiterating here, partly because they are important and partly because they are little reported.

After detailing the horrors experienced by one of their flock in his failed attempt to reach Europe, (stumbling across skeletons of others who had not made it, as he made his way through deserts, being tortured in order to make him extort further sums of money from his family in Nigeria, who had already paid thousands of euros to smugglers), the priests explained that the population of Nigeria, according to the Brookings Institute, is 180 million and of that number half are deemed to live in extreme poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa more generally, they told the conference,  there are 10 million displaced people, which one of them pointed out is not a number that could be absorbed by Europe, should they all decide to come our way. Even leaving that small issue aside, the two priests continued, the countries of Africa cannot afford to lose their young to Europe, however helpful it may be for us to use them to perform work that no one else wants to do. 

The priests went on to describe how the problems of Africa are the result of a collapse of democracy, leading to failed states and a lack of proper - or, indeed, any - governmental structures. In their view, what is needed from the west is help from the bottom up - education, (literacy promotion et cetera) - and at a structural level, assistance in building proper government practices and democratic frameworks - plus investment to create jobs 

This last suggestion is all very well, but, judging by some of the illustrations shown at the conference, not to mention other things I’ve read, some western oil businesses have been more than happy to operate in a country where government is not at its best, as it is precisely the lack of oversight (and probably the corruption that is so often present in bad governments) that has allowed them to do terrible things to the environment in Nigeria, not to mention exploit their workers revoltingly. Similarly, the cobalt industry in the Congo provides jobs, but not jobs that allow workers any kind of safety, let alone dignity - or even decent earnings. Therefore doing everything possible to create good governance seems the first priority. Sadly there may be no time left, of course, as in many places the Chinese are turning up to offer their own investment, which is unlikely to offer the kind of governance that I would call good.

But, turning from sub Saharan Africa in general, the two priests explained how particularly dire the situation is now in northern Nigeria, for Christians in particular (although not exclusively Christians, they explained, as Boko Haram kill Muslims as well as Christians, when it suits them). 

Northern Nigeria is now 75% Muslim. The 25% of the population who are Christian are barred from participating in many areas of activity, including studying medicine or engineering or taking government office, we were told. Most appallingly though, Christians in that part of the country are being murdered in large numbers. The priests cited the year 2014 as an example. In that year, out of every 100 Christians murdered in the world, 64 of them were murdered in Northern Nigeria. And the numbers are large -  between 2006 and 2017, 20,500 Christians were murdered in this one part of Africa - and 1.1 million Christians were displaced from the region. 

Furthermore, in the last few weeks an estimated 280 Christians have been murdered by radical Muslim herdsmen in northern Nigeria. This is a story that gets very little coverage in the western press, which is why I felt it important to record here what the two priests told the conference. The lack of coverage seems particularly worrying as it seems to suggest that we hold the peoples of other countries to lower standards than we hold ourselves. Surely the murder of so many innocent Africans merits at least the same measure of outrage as that expressed in the aftermath of the murder of innocent New Zealanders.

While the talk given by the two Nigerian priests left me with nothing but concern and very little hope, I was glad that the issue was discussed and that I was given the opportunity to become a little better informed about what is going on in this underreported area of the planet. Without serious assistance from the international community, I doubt anything will be resolved, and I fear the bloodshed will continue in northern Nigeria. This is not right and I cannot understand what the United Nations thinks it is doing - or not doing. So much money is poured into that organisation, but it seems unable to do much to improve the lives of people living in the more violent areas of the world. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Complex Business of Kindness

Over the weekend, I went to a conference on immigration, organised here in Budapest by the Matthias Corvinus Collegium. The organisers of the conference had brought together an enormous number of interesting speakers, and I found much of what I listened to extremely thought provoking.

While, at first glance, it seems obvious to anyone who professes to be a Christian that the people streaming into Europe from the various hellholes of the world deserve our sympathy and generosity, I realised, over the course of a number of talks, that, as so often, things are much more complex than at first they seem and that, when we think we are doing good by others, we are often creating dreadful situations and aiding and abetting appalling people to ply a ghastly trade.

I recorded a few talks and, as there does not yet seem to be any sign of the video-ed conference proceedings appearing on the Matthias Corvinus Collegium website, I have decided to transcribe what I have, so that other people can share in some of what was said.

In today's post, I am putting my transcription - (probably including several inaccurate place names and names of tribes, as the speaker dealt in territory that was very unfamiliar to me) - of a talk by Dr Saul Kelly, who is a Reader in the Defence Studies Department of King's College, London.

In his talk, Dr Kelly explained how the new migrant flow that is arriving in Europe from Africa is in many ways a replication of the slave trading that Europe made such intense efforts to end in the nineteenth century. After considering the thesis that Dr Kelly advances, it is hard to look at the refugee influx to Europe from the simplistic perspective of thinking that all should be allowed in as that is the only decent thing to do.

Even before listening to Dr Kelly, I must admit that I had begun to feel concerned about whether we were doing the right thing by not enforcing our borders strictly. Various incidents had led me to wonder about this. The most recent was a couple of weeks ago, in a Vietnamese restaurant in Kinsgland Road, London, when I noticed a young person being horribly bullied by the boss of the restaurant. When the boss wasn't looking, I asked the person being bullied where they came from and they answered, "Eritrea". They spoke very little English and seemed very frightened and I wondered whether, by not being stricter about stopping illegal migration, we may not in fact be encouraging people to misguidedly make dangerous journeys away from everything and everyone they know, only to find, if they survive the journey, that, unskilled and unable to speak the local language well, they must endure terrible circumstances in the new home they have sought.

Anyway here is my transcription of the talk that Dr Kelly gave. Its content only increased my fears about the whole complicated business, which I believe really is one of the major questions facing us today. If it is too long, at least take a look at the parts I have highlighted in bold; I think they get across to the reader the major concerns that he raises:

"In the autumn of 2004, I was on an expedition to the Gil Kabeer (?)  in the extreme southwest of Egypt, hard up against the borders of Sudan and Libya. We were looking for new rock-art sites, but we were also on the trail of a rather famous Hungarian explorer, who some of you may have heard of - Lászlo Almássy, who in 1942 took a German commando expedition across the Libyan desert to the Nile, to deliver a couple of spies on behalf of Rommel, from behind British lines.

During the course of our hunt for rock-art and Almássy, we came across a shallow, unmarked grave on the edge of a WWII air strip. We wanted to know who the person was who was buried in such an isolated spot, far from habitation. We talked to our Bedouin guides about this and we were told, with a shrug of the shoulders, that it was probably someone from the south – from Eritrea or Somalia – someone who didn't make it to the Mediterranean coast across the great wastes of the Libyan desert.

Fifteen years ago, when I was on this expedition, the Libyans were still patrolling their frontiers with Egypt and the Sudan, looking for these elicit caravans run by people smugglers across the Libyan desert, as I discovered when we were stopped in Sudanese territory by a Libyan patrol – because the Sudanese government, as I learnt later from their director of desert surveys, was not aware at this time that migrant smugglers were using this route through what was the northwest corner of Sudan into Egypt and Libya. And the Egyptian army were reluctant to leave their comfortable billet in the western oases in Egypt to actually patrol the tri-border area around Jabal Uweinat. This is classic bandit country, where there is no rule of law, except through the barrel of a gun. This is where smugglers coming from the Sudan rest up and hide out on their way north to the Mediterranean shore, skirting great sand seas on their way. 

Their elicit task of people smuggling was made much easier in 2011 with the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. After that event, the Libyans gave up all pretence of policing their borders. The consequence was an unimpeded flow of migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, into Libya. And this has been mirrored by a more westerly stream of migrants coming up from West Africa, mainly Nigeria, through the Fezzan, which is the south western province of Libya, on their way to the Mediterranean.

So what we have been witnessing in recent years is the mass migration of people from failed or failing states to Europe. This is aided and abetted by criminal syndicates, expatriate networks, corrupt officials, militias and tribal leaders, who all benefit financially from this trade in people – and in fact the Libyans call them abid, which means slave.

For, make no mistake, we are looking at a revival of the slave trade, something we thought had been finally put down by the European powers in North Africa a century ago. Then it was the Ottoman empire that had an insatiable appetite for African slaves; now it is the European Union, whose leaders seek a new workforce to support and replace its ageing population.  It is one of the great ironies of history that the western liberal conscience that drove the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade should now not only condone but positively encourage the revival of that trade, as I shall detail in this paper.

So what is the problem? We need to identify it, and I think some comparative statistics are useful here. At a conservative estimate it is calculated that between the seventh and the 20th centuries about six to seven million African slaves - men, women and children - were delivered alive across the Sahara to North Africa. This amounts to an average annual rate of some 5,000 people, of whom about 1,500 to 1,700 were taken to Egypt or shipped across the Mediterranean, the rest becoming domestic slaves in North Africa, which of course was under the Ottoman Empire at this time.

Compare those statistics to some from the International Organisation for Migration which says that, between 2014 and 2018, 600,000 migrants landed in Italy, 90 per cent of them coming from the Libyan shore, only six per cent from Egypt. As we know, there were also some 3,000 recorded deaths on the central Mediterranean route during this time.In a nine-month period, from January to September 2015, a quarter of the 128,619 people recorded by Frontex, the EU border agency, as having landed in Italy were identified as being from Eritrea. They amounted to more than 30,000 Eritreans - and their numbers were more than double those of the second largest national group, those from Nigeria. This is remarkable, given that Eritreans represent only some four per cent of the region's population.

So why is this exodus from this small state on the Red Sea happening? Well, to put it in a neat phrase, it is due to young Eritreans dodging the draft. In a desperate attempt to deal with a deteriorating internal security situation in Eritrea,the regime in Asmara has sought to dragoon more young people into the armed forces, and many of them have voted with their feet and fled Eritrea to Europe. They have been helped by organised crime groups, whose kingpins are based in Sudan, Libya and Italy, and, before 2013, by a consortium of Rashidi (?) smugglers operating across the border between Sudan and Eritrea, along with, later on, Egyptian Bedouin gangs, colluding with Eritrean kingpin gang masters to smuggle tens of thousands of migrants along the arms-smuggling route to the north of Sinai and the borders of Israel. This was only stopped in 2013 when the Israelis built a 330-kilometre long security fence along the frontier with Egypt. Once this Sinai route had been cut off, the smugglers focused on the Libyan route, and there was put in place a network of transporters, financial facilitators and warehouses, like the old slave barracoons on the West African coast, existing essentially to serve this trade route in people.

In 2015 the majority of Eritreans were smuggled in vehicles through the Sudan to Libya, via the triborder area around Jabal Uweinat. They avoid Kufra, across the border in Libya, and this is because the Toubou and Zawiya tribes are fighting each other. These traditional enemies and rivals having gone to war over the revival of the slave trade and who can make the most money out of it.

So the smugglers make for the Tazirbu oasis which is north of Kufra on the track to Ajdabiya, which is country controlled by the Mugaba (?) tribe. From Ajdabiya, the Eritreans are conveyed north westwards to the Tripolitanean coast, from whence the lucky ones are dispatched by boat across the central Mediterranean to Italy. I say "the lucky ones" not because I think them lucky, but because the less fortunate suffer a worse fate, being incarcerated in makeshift warehouses or detention camps along the Tripolitanean coast.

At every point along this journey, these migrants are subject to depradations from smugglers and tribal militias, who proceed to extort more money from them. There have been plenty of horror stories of kidnap, rape and even abandonment of migrants in the desert, where they die of starvation and thirst. There have also been stories of ISIS militants, when they were based at Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, actually ambushing migrant convoys, separating Muslims from Christians and executing the latter. There have been reports - and some other speakers here have referred to this - of slave auctions being held in the large detention camps, called barracoons in Libya, near the coast. And the escalation of the conflict between the various militias from 2014, combined with a significant increase in the number of migrants coming through Libya, meant that the latter became a commodity that fuelled the war, further pulling apart the Libyan state, such as it is. 

 In effect, what we have witnessed in Libya is a revival of the old Saharan slave trade - and along some of the same routes. It is worth remembering that in the latter half of the nineteenth century it was the European powers that put pressure on the Ottoman empire to abolish the slave trade, and it was French expansion in the Sahara that forced the trade onto the Wadi(?)-Kufra-Benghazi route, which, under the supervision of the Sanusi(?) brotherhood and the deputations of the Zawiya tribe, was remote from prying European eyes. This is basically the route taken by slave traders today, and some of the very same tribes that were involved with the original slave trade are involved with today's trade - and are profiting from it. 

What is to be done to abolish this miserable trade, which threatens not only the countries of origin by robbing them of their young; but the transit countries, where it contributes to the breakdown of law and order; and the countries of destination in Europe, where it puts great strain on society? If some “experts” and Jean Claude Juncker are to be believed, the answer to illegal migration lies in legalising it. According to this line of argument, this will benefit both Europe, meeting labour shortages, and Africa, through the remittances being sent back to the countries of origin. The UN has given this approach their imprimatur in their Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regulated Migration, which was adopted at their Marrakech conference in December 2018. It is worth noting that the European Commission's attempt to have this approach written into the communique at the recent EU-Arab League summit in Sharm-el Sheikh was thwarted by Hungary. The latter does not accept the EU's position that migration is unavoidable because of the situation on the African continent.

And indeed, the EU, in this instance, seems to be contradicting the logic of its own emergency trust fund for Africa, which is intended to fight the root causes of irregular migration. Through large grants of money, the fund seeks to improve the situation in the countries of origin, so that people do not feel the need to migrate. But the EU has put equal emphasis on - and money into - stopping migrants along the way in Niger, Mali, Senegal, Libya and Ethiopia as into preventing their leaving the top countries of origin - namely Nigeria, Eritrea and Somalia - in the first place. While such aid can, according to the OECD, prevent an increase in the proportion of people who emigrate and possibly reduce numbers, this will only occur in the long-term; in the short-term, by slightly raising living standards, the aid can actually encourage migration, by making it affordable.

So what we can see here is that the EU has got itself into an awful tangle over migration and seeks an easy and defeatist way out. In doing so, it is effectively seeking to legitimise an abhorrent trade for its own perceived economic and social needs. But it is not consulting the people of Europe and of Africa on this, even though it is a matter that will affect their lives and the lives of later generations. This demonstrates a moral bankruptcy and an abdication of responsibility towards the peoples of two continents.

 The answer to migration does not lie in Europe; it lies in the countries of origin. By allowing corrupt regimes to survive - and even prosper - the EU and the UN have simply compounded the problem of state failure, a chief by-product of which is migration. Until the EU and the UN face up to their responsibilities in countries like Eritrea and Libya, which they should have done after 2011, the new slave trade in migration will continue.

Monday, 25 March 2019

March Faces

I’ve been continuing to photograph the faces on buildings and, if you’re interested, you can see some more of them here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Modern Annoyances

The BooksInq blog led me to an interesting site the other day. It regularly does.

This site - called LitHub - had an article about 'voice' on it, written by someone called Tony Hoagland. In his article, Hoagland quoted a poem by Naomi Lazard. It is a poem that conjures up the sense I often have that shadowy figures somewhere in glass offices are making perverse decisions about all sorts of things that affect me, but without reference to whether I or anyone else might object:

We are sorry to inform you
 the item you ordered
is no longer being produced.
It has not gone out of style
nor have people lost interest in it.
In fact, it has become
one of our most desired products.
Its popularity is still growing.
However, a top-level decision
has caused this product
to be discontinued forever.
Instead of the item you ordered
we are sending you something else.
It is not the same thing,
nor is it a reasonable facsimile.

While not as poetic - it is that 'forever' that I think makes the poem - my first experience of this particularly annoying aspect of modern consumerism came when I travelled to England from Australia to visit my brother. A friend in Australia had been to England many times and each time she had bought a new pair of a style of shoes that she liked in Dolcis. She asked me if I would buy her another similar pair when I was there.

I said I would, so when I spotted a big branch of Dolcis, I went into the shop and asked if I could find another pair of my friend's shoes. The assistant looked at my picture of the shoes and shook her head. She said she recognised the shoes but they didn't sell them any more. "Why not?" I asked. "They were too popular", came the reply

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Beware of the Dog

Among the pictures I was marvelling at in London’s National Gallery the other day was this one -
The adoration of the Kings, Jan Gossaert, 1510-15, (Caspar, one of the Three Kings, kneels before the Virgin. Melchior stands behind him, and the black king is Balthasar. The dove of the Holy Spirit descends from the star which guided the kings. Shepherds stand to the right and more appear in the distance.)

My main interest was the dogs, but it turned out I missed a hidden angel - & so much more. Luckily a BBC Radio 4 programme explained many interesting things about the painting & it can be listened to here

This picture I didn't even like, except for the dog. I suppose I ought to have been interested because the painter is female, which as we all know is unusual because of the horrible male dominated art world, blah, blah, blah:
Portrait of a Woman, 1551, by Catharina van Hemessen (The woman carries a small dog under her arm. She is probably from Antwerp in the Low Countries, where the artist painted many similar portraits of women. The sitter's exact identity is unknown.)

Although I'm not usually wild about Gainsborough, this one I thought lovely - and, at the time, idealised, but since then I have spent ten days in various rural places and discovered that rural England really is this lovely:
The Market Cart, 1786, by Thomas Gainsborough, (A girl and three younger children are shown returning home from market. Their wagon is laden with fresh produce. The boy gathering sticks for fuel ont he right was included as an afterthought. The position of the horse's head was also altered, making it strain forwards: the old position can be seen where the paint has become transparent with age)
The dogs just added to the image's appeal:

This couple doesn't appeal to me at all, but their dog redeems them; sometimes I think that is the function of dogs, which is perhaps why so many terrifying people loitering in city streets keep dogs. My cousin's husband believes there is a shop somewhere that sells canine accessories especially for the dogs of itinerants - a collar and lead made out of grubby string, that kind of thing, or possibly a kennel owner who has a long queue of waiting clients for his line of slightly depressed, sandy grey, uncertain breed puppies, each one provided with a rope collar and lead as part of the package:
Mr & Mrs William Hallett ("The Morning Walk"), 1785, Thomas Gainsborough, (Gainsborough portrayed William Hallett (1764-1842) & Elizabeth Stephen (1763-1833) shortly before their marriage on 30 July 1785. They may be wearing their wedding clothes. Mrs Hallett's silk dress; the white fur of the Pomeranian sheep dog; and the foliage are evoked with the light brushstrokes Gainsborough used in the last phase of his career)

Stubbs is famed for his horses, but this picture includes a pretty good stab by him at a dog as well
The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, about 1769, George Stubbs (Elizabeth Milbanke, left, married Peniston Lamb, far right, later First Viscount Melbourne, shortly before this group portrait was painted. She is shown seated in a carriage, perhaps because she was pregnant at the time. The other sitters are, from left, her father Sir Ralph Milbanke and her brother John Milbanke)

Not that I am arguing about Stubbs's status when it came to painting horses; he was and remains the king in that field:
Whistlejacket, 1762 George Stubbs, (The racehorse Whistlejacket was painted life size for his owner, the second Marquess of Rockingham, in celebrtation of the Arabian-bred stallion's superb proportions and beautiful appearance. Rockingham's interest in classical sculpture may have inspired this arresting and unusual presentation)

There is a dog in this picture, but even without one it is extremely intriguing. It seems to be a painting out of its time, faintly surreal and more 1920s than 1750, and I have to add that the inclusion of a third Gainsborough in one post seems to be undermining my claim that I don't like Gainsborough:
Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough (Robert Andrews married Frances Carter in 1748. The couple pose under an oak tree in a field where sheaves of ripe corn have been harvested. The painting of Mrs Andrew's lap is unfinished; the space may have been reserved for a child for Mrs Andrews to hold)

This painting I definitely wasn't interested in, beyond the chubby pup:
Portrait of Don Justion de Neve, 1665 by Murillo (The sitter was a canon of Seville Cathedral and a friend and patron of the artist. He obtained a major commission for Murillo, the decoration of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca in Seville)

This one appealed to me for its subject matter, and the dog was just an added bonus:
Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, 1667-70, Murillo, (Christ, with three apostles, healed a paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda, (John 5: 2-8) The painting is one of six works by Murillo illustrating the Acts of Charity. They were made for the church of the Confraternity of the Caridad in Seville)

This one has a background that hints at intrigue and makes one curious - but the dog, ugly as it is, was once again the clincher for me:
Queen Mariana of Spain in Mourning, 1666, by Juan Bautista Martinex del Mazo, (Queen Mariana was the wife of Philip IV. She acted as Regent from his death in 1665 until 1677, when their son Charles II, reached majority. Charles is shown as a young boy in the background. The widow's dress Mariana wears in this portrait resembles a nun's habit)

It may seem wrong and frivolous to be focussing on dogs, given the National Gallery's collection has so much more of spiritual edification to offer. I offer as justification the fact that Crufts, the dog show, has just taken place in Birmingham. Of course, this is a time-limited (that dreadful Brexit jargon, it seems to slip into one's brain by osmosis, eurgh eurgh eurgh) justification and I will have to come up with something better when I continue to focus on canines, both back at the National and everywhere else I go to see paintings.

All right, I admit it - I like looking at paintings of dogs. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

The World as it Was and Ways of Painting the Virgin Mary

I was in London the other day and intended to go to the National Portrait Gallery to look at an exhibition of miniatures that I have read is very good. However, I thought I would first go next door to the National Gallery and spend a few minutes worshipping at the altar of one of my favourite paintings - the self-portrait of van Eyck that is housed in the gallery's Sainsbury wing.

But when I reached the part of the gallery where the van Eyck used to hang, everything had been swapped around. It was wonderful. I was forced to look at a whole lot of pictures I either hadn't noticed before or had never seen at all - perhaps they were in storage and not on display at all until this rehang.

I discovered so many beautiful paintings. The first is this Virgin and Child by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, which was painted, they think, somewhere between 1496 and 1499.

What first attracted me to the painting was the unusual portrayal of the Virgin - so pale, with the colouring of a red headed Celt:
After that, I thought of how much my brother liked it when I remembered to photograph the landscapes in the backgrounds of ancient paintings, and I took these for him, for old time's sake:
The city shown is probably Conegliano, north of Venice and home of the artist
I was intrigued to see a very different Virgin in this nearby painting, a woman with more angular features and a slightly mournful cast to her expression, as if she can see into the future and knows what will happen to the innocent little boy she is holding protectively. The painting is by Alvise Vivarini, and was painted between 1483 and 1485:
Once more the painter provides a vista through the window in the background that acts as a kind of postcard from the past, giving the viewer a sense of the quiet, still, uncluttered world of the fifteenth century:
The next work to catch my eye was this Virgin and Child with Saint John, painted by Antonio de Solario between 1500 and 1510:
The wall caption tells us that the picture shows the Christ child standing on a stone parapet, prefiguring his future resurrection from the tomb. His nakedness reflects his divine incarnation, and the symbolic depiction of the figures provides a personal visual aid to devotion, while the delicate landscape transforms the picture into a beautiful object.

It seems to me that the Virgin is not strongly characterised in this picture, unlike John the Baptist - it is his image that makes the painting particularly endearing to me:
This is the background landscape the caption mentions:
Antonello da Messina's Christ Crucified, painted in 1475, could hardly fail to appeal to me, given that it is almost all background. Once again the quietness of the world of the fifteenth century is the thing that strikes me most. Mary's portrait is simple almost to the point of being a cartoon, but it does express poignance:
When I came to the next painting, it surprised me. Painted somewhere between 1460 and 1469 it is thought to also be by da Messina, painter of the above crucifixion, although the two pictures strike me as very different. For a start, this one gives no glimpse of any life beyond the dark walls of the space in which the subjects are depicted; in addition, the face of the central character looks oddly modern and its expression seems worryingly lacking in tenderness - more White Witch from Narnia than Blessed Virgin. Furthermore, the child is dressed like a mini adult and seems oddly doll like:
At first I mistook the wings of the crown-bearing angels for some sort of axehead-shaped ornament jutting out from the Virgin's crown.

The next picture that captured my attention is this one of Christ appearing to the virgin after his death. It was painted by Juan de Flande between 1499 and 1500. I like the big blocks of pink and blue and the intricate detail of the floor tiles and the host of souls behind Jesus, I like the Virgin and the speech scrolls, but above all I like the pigeons:
Nearby I found a painting made by Michael Sittow in 1500. It is one of a series of 47 painted for Queen Isabella of Castile; only 27 survive. I am always fond of Ascension paintings when they show only Christ's feet as he disappears into the clouds. There is such an innocent quality to the decision to show those feet, without any apparent recognition that the resulting image is inevitably slightly absurd (perhaps because there just is something absurd about feet? Or perhaps I am being too subjective and others do not find such compositions similarly endearing)
The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine from the early 16th century was the next picture I found showing the Virgin Mary. It intrigued me largely because it is by a Portuguese artist (name unknown). It is rare that one sees a work identified as by someone from Portugal -  in fact, I don't remember ever having done so before. The choice of a rather pale colour scheme also interested me. The wall label explains that the setting of a walled garden is a reference to Mary's virginity, that Saint Joseph is the man in the background and the figure reading in the right foreground is probably Mary Magdalene. As so often with older pictures, the image is painted onto wood. Far fewer images on canvas survive from long ago, because canvas is far less durable than wood.

Mary herself is not a very fully formed character here, I don't think, although the woodwind blowing angel over her shoulder looks full of mischief:
This next painting of the Virgin and Child with Saint Peter and Saint Paul, probably from the 1460s, comes from the workshop of Dirk Bouts, and I would guess that the painter was probably hoping to rival van Eyk or van der Weyden. I don't think that he (or, faintly possibly, she) did a bad job at all. Once again, the virgin's expression seems to convey an anticipatory mourning:

Speaking of Rogier van der Weyden, in an adjacent room, I was pleased to be introduced to this painting I'd never seen before - A Man Reading (possibly Saint Ivo) from the workshop of van der Weyden
I had not heard of Saint Ivo before - he is, it turns out, the patron saint of Brittany, lawyers and abandoned children, which is a fairly mixed bag. He is also referred to as the "Advocate of the Poor", if Wikipedia is to be believed.

In memory of my brother, I also include the view from Saint Ivo's window:
That is enough for today, although these are only a few of the treasures I saw in the gallery. It is a truly wonderful place and I think one could spend many days in there without running out of things to wonder at. More soon.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Reading - January 2019

I discovered Rachel Cusk last year, and spent most of an overnight stay in St Florian reading her recent trilogy, while my husband tossed and turned, disturbed by monastery bells. Now I have read The Country Life, Arlington Park, The Temporary  and In the Fold as well. I am looking forward to reading everything she writes

Interviewed about that recent trilogy, (Outline, Kudos and Transit) Cusk has declared the death of character. While I think such a statement is ridiculous in general, inasmuch as it applies to her own enormous but particular talent it is probably sensible. That is to say, character is not her strength. Nor is plot. What she is good at is analogy and what she is truly brilliant at is clear, careful, detailed observation. Her descriptive writing is, as someone I know put it, "forensic".

As I read most of the books that I have read by Cusk on a Kindle, I have an electronic list of all the parts of them that I highlighted because I thought them so strikingly good. Looking through them, I see that Cusk can be very, very funny, but, to reiterate, the thing I especially admire in her work is her ability to describe with perfect accuracy phenomena that I have observed and long wished to describe, without ever finding the words.

Rather than download my full and very lengthy collection of admirable quotes from Cusk's writing, I have chosen just one as an example, taken from In the Fold. In it, Rachel Cusk describes the kind of busy road one drives along so often in overcrowded Britain, the kind that slices through an area of housing that was never built with motor vehicles in mind. Her careful - forensic? - choice of words means an everyday scene that on the face of it is dull and ugly, a scene that many writers would simply ignore, is evoked as the unbearable place to live that such places are in reality for so many:

"There the coast road passed through, a fuming, hooting, rattling cascade of metal the narrow, decorous terraces struggled to contain. Great lorries like dinosaurs manoeuvred on the small roundabouts. Dirty trucks freighted with skips and scaffolding roared past, driven by men who gazed blankly through their spattered windscreens. Beside them the pavements and brick walls of front gardens looked miniature: the gardens and the facades of the houses shook like toys as the lorries passed and the daffodils seemed to jolt from side to side in the grass. The houses looked so vulnerable next to the pounding road that it was difficult to believe in the world in which they had been constructed. Some of the terraces were only fifty or sixty years old but they seemed rooted in a past that had become meaningless. Great weights hurtled back and forth at high velocity past the little, unaccustomed rows of houses, four feet from their front gates."

Helen Garner shares Rachel Cusk's  ability to observe the physical world and the people she meets “forensically” and then to translate her observation into words. Although she is one of my favourite writers, given that I don’t like the intrusive nature of biographies,  I don’t quite know why I borrowed Bernadette Brennan’s prizewinning biography of Garner from the library. I must admit that, within its genre, it is an excellent book and almost as readable as Garner’s own works. However, by the end, I felt that I had been nosily rummaging about in the subject’s underwear drawer and, unsurprisingly, had emerged with a slight sense of disappointment.

Until I read the biography, there was only one element of Garner’s work that I did not admire - that was a slight tendency to overblown emotion, tipping into sentimentality. Unfortunately, the picture of Garner that emerges from the book suggests that she is capable of an impulsive emotional volatility. This made me suspect that the sentimentality I detected in some of the work might be the mere tip of the iceberg. I  was left with a disturbing impression of someone more narcissistic and less wise than I had imagined.

I was also shocked that Garner identified with Anu Singh, the murderer of Joe Cinque and that she does not believe evil exists. To me the story of Joe Cinque’s death is a story of how evil does exist, but only when we make the choice to embrace it. In my view, every day of our lives is a day in which we make countless decisions about whether to be good or not - impatience, my besetting fault, is a small concession to evil, because it usually entails a choice not to be kind. Kindness is a denial of evil and evil is a decision to love yourself instead of others. I’m shocked that Garner does not recognise this, as I thought her writing was at heart deeply moral.

Forensic is not a word one would,use about Bill Shorten - although ruthless might fit the bill. David Marr’s Quarterly Essay about the man who I am almost convinced will become Australia’s next Prime Minister at the federal election due in May is not very edifying. Our probable next leader is a man who understands power, who wants to be Prime Minister, but who seems to believe in nothing. You need to be tough in politics, but this person appears to have no loyalty to anyone or anything. He also does not seem very interested in ideas or the life of the mind. I suppose everything will muddle along though, just as before, bug with a few more taxes and a lot more irritating initiatives to remodel society in the shape of whichever new identity interest group shouts loudest on the day. Marr is a good writer, capturing vignettes of party conference scenes and plotters’ meetings very well, but there is, inevitably, quite a lot of detail about the process of Shorten’s political career within the union movement and later the Labor Party that I found hard going.

I also read Cure by Jo Marchant. It describes a number of cases and studies that have demonstrated that placeboes are effective, even when those being given them know that they are placeboes. It is one of the most staggering things I have ever read, seeming to prove irrefutably that physical health is intimately tied up with mental state. Fascinating.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Bristol and Birmingham Stone Faces

I was in Birmingham yesterday and I’m in Bristol today. I saw some nice faces on the facades of buildings and I put them on an Instagram account I’ve just begun, as a way of feeding my fondness for photographing architectural decoration that I see. The account is called oldfacesoldplaces

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Farce - French versus English

There is a new production of Moliere’s Tartuffe at London’s National Theatre and, while in London the other day, we went along. Tartuffe is usually described as a satire but this production played it mainly as a farce, and we enjoyed it a lot, (for more detail, look here).

A couple of days after seeing Tartuffe, we went to Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling’s house in Sussex and enjoyed another, more English form of farce.

Bateman's is a National Trust property, and when we arrived we were asked if we were Trust members. When we said we weren't, the woman at the ticket office reacted with such astonishment, she might have been in a pantomime - can she really never have encountered others of our ilk?

Perhaps it was her amazement that led her to forget to mention that, although we were paying a lot of money to go in, we would not in fact be getting very good value, because of the time of year. Anyway, she did neglect to tell us this, so we made our way down through the walled kitchen garden, where little was growing, although someone had planted a stick to which was fixed a laminated piece of paper, announcing that Ernest Shackleton had once been a visitor to the house.

We entered the house itself through a large shop, selling soaps and coffee cups and fudge and scented drawer envelopes and picnic rugs and all sorts of other things unrelated to Rudyard Kipling. We were asked to gather in what looked like the former scullery, to wait for our tour to begin. A group of people was already in there when we turned up, watched over by two women in puffer jackets, who turned out to be our guides.

After a bit of discussion between these two women about whether anyone else was coming, we set off. We were led through a short narrow corridor- a route that we were told was a special privilege not given to many visitors- and into a dark room, which we were informed was the front hall. There we peered at the vague outline of what one woman announced was the National Trust's oldest working clock, (British made and keeping much, much better time than the one facing it, a newer device, made in the Netherlands, so yah boo sucks, Europe).

I took this information on trust as it wasn't easy to make out the object and anyway we were moving on - into to yet another ill-lit room. This, apparently, was the Kiplings' sitting room. The blinds were down, as they had been in the first room, and, while one of our guides explained what the various objects that loomed out of the darkness were, the other held up a torch with a rather faint beam. We all peered in whichever direction was indicated, but I don't believe any of us made out more than vague outlines. At a certain point scratchy music burst upon us, as one of the women had managed to get a wind-up gramophone to operate. Then she picked up something woolen and shoved it somewhere in the shadows and the sound was muffled. There was no volume control on old record players, she explained, as she did this, and so you had to put a sock in the broadcasting horn to moderate the noise - hence the phrase, "put a sock in it".

We passed through more rooms, all in semi-darkness. We were not allowed into Kipling’s writing room, because of something to do with the floor. Instead we were invited to take turns at putting one eye to the door jamb, through which we each got a glimpse of a room in which all the furniture appeared to be piled up in a corner (conservation) and, once again, the blinds were down, obscuring the view that, we were told, sustained and inspired Kipling in his day.

Everyone accepted the conditions meekly, except my husband, who is Australian and not trained in "mustn't grumble" manners. When we reached the upstairs bedroom, which was plunged in semi-obscurity like the rest of the place, his patience gave out. What about pulling up the blinds, he suggested, to make things a little easier to see?

Our guides seemed mildly hurt by this suggestion and for the rest of the tour kept returning to their justifications, which boiled down to rules and the importance of observing them, without anything so impertinent as a questioning spirit. We were experiencing the National Trust's winter arrangements, apparently . They were ever so sorry, but t hey were prohibited from pulling up the blinds until the summer system, known as "free flow" came into force. Once that happened, the world would be our oyster, we would be able to come and go as we pleased, windows would be uncovered and everything would be illuminated.

Not being English, my husband wanted to know why we couldn't have the blinds up and do all these things now. Silly man, I thought, he doesn't understand the fundamentals of English farce - I mean life: rules, the more pointless the better, strictly adhered to, uncontestable, and rigidly applied.
The one area where extreme efficiency occurs in British existence is in the application of rules. 

We trailed on through the house, but the mood was ruined. The wind had gone out of the two women's sails. They continued their pointless descriptions of things that could not be seen (they seemed not to understand that a torch held to a glass cabinet does not illuminate the objects inside but merely creates a bright reflection that bounces back and hurts the observer's eyes), but kept returning to the issue of "free flow" and their justifications, (which had no substance, if you didn't accept that a rule is a rule is a rule, however idiotic) for the window blinds being kept closed.

Since then we have visited more National Trust properties. We have even been sufficiently tamed to buy ourselves a membership of the organisation. What I have realised is that it is a quintessentially British organisation, staffed voluntarily by an army of people who love enforcing rules. Which is possibly the pastime enjoyed more than any other by inhabitants of the British isles.

Mind you, not everyone who volunteers is English. A couple of days after going to Bateman's, we went to have a look at Petworth, and there I witnessed a young female volunteer of Spanish origin, come rushing out into the courtyard to chastise someone for standing two feet within the gateway with a dog on a lead. The gusto with which she enforced regulations was a triumph of the local culture, her natural Latin laissez faire instincts clearly completely eclipsed by immersion in her new environment. It made me proud to be British.

But it also started me thinking. Many British who chose to vote to leave the European Union did so because they were sick of all its rules and regulations, but what if in fact that proliferation of rules and regulations turns out to have been the result of British membership? What if, with the United Kingdom gone, the massed ranks of bureaucrats in Brussels will breathe a sigh of relief and say to themselves, "Thank heavens they've disappeared; now we won't have to make up any more new rules to make life difficult for everyone." How embarrassing that would turn out to be.