Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Notes from England - 1.

I tried to watch the new Doctor Who last night. He is a Scotchman, presumably to help persuade the Scots to stay in the United Kingdom. I was dismayed that two of the female characters in a children's programme were married to one another and try to draw comfort from the fact that one of the two is from Outer Space and has scales. 

I am reading the first pages of 'The Riddle of the Sands' - my yacht cruise whetted my appetite - and find I am saddened by how much less hierarchical England is these days. Then solicitors were ipso facto middle-class and vulgar. I sometimes think I should have gone to the bar and fought against the zeitgeist there. But better to be in Bucharest and away from it all.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Sir Richard Attenborough has died

I am (much) too young to remember Richard Attenborough the actor and haven't seen the films he acted in on television. My mother liked them, though. I didn't much like the ones he made. 

Dickie the luvvie slightly bored me and he seemed a humourless progressive. When at an awards ceremony Mel Smith made a joke about a new film called 'Gandhi 2: The Empire Strikes Back' the camera panned on Dickie, who glowered.

Now Smith and Dickie and all our great men are dead. I'm not feeling so well myself.

'Is the West willing to live with the Islamic State governing and raising armies in the heart of the Middle East? The question is not rhetorical.'

This is an Interesting analysis by Fred Kagan in  the Sunday Telegraph.

We British helped create this horror and we have to do something to help Kurds, including Yezidis, and Christians. Partly this is for humanitarian motives and some would say why shouldn't we help the Shia too and then I am not exactly clear how to answer. I do not think the so-called Caliphate is a direct threat to British interests. The direct threat comes from many young Muslims in Britain and from allowing further immigration


My nephew-godson's 21st birthday and my niece's 18th birthday party. Discussing how time flies, I hear myself say,

'I remember the Soviet Union breaking up and then whoosh it's now.'

Kazimierz Dolny and Warsaw

Wojcech saw that I was in Lublin on Facebook and  recommended Kazimierz Dolny. Touristy and thoroughly predigested but I enjoyed it, restaurants, amazing architecture and sylvan walks, despite myself. 

Kazimierz Dolny, merchant's house, market square
Detail from the facade of the house

Kazimierz Dolny is a village with quite extraordinary architecture. it is no longer a real village but a tourist place but it is not too full of trippers and the man in the tourist information centre told me that 80% are Polish. The churches and the houses are remarkable, especially the one in the photograph above.

Then a taxi to the nearest station twenty minutes away and the two hour journey through attractive countryside to Warsaw. 

I had forgotten - twenty years passed since I was last here - that it is beautiful. Warsaw rebuilt after the war - not a brick was left standing by the Germans - is not simply evidence of the rebirth of the human spirit because it was rebuilt under the Communist regime, baroque churches and all. The same Stalin who had partitioned Poland with Germany in 1939. 

One thinks all the time of what the Germans did here in the war. It feels like a sort of morgue.

However, Warsaw is something for Poles to take pride in as well as sorrow. The old town itself is pretty and wisely they did not rebuild the mid and late 19th century buildings but rebuilt it as it had been earlier, but it is a place for tourists, a kind of Covent Garden. Much more interesting is the long Royal Route which winds through a mile or more to the old town, full of copies of wonderful airy classical buildings. Someone said a copy is an act of cowardice following an act of courage but I wonder if this should apply to Warsaw and decide that clearly it doesn't. The centre of Warsaw is a very attractive and does make Bucharest look the shabby compromised place that of course it is.

Like Sweden, Poland does not quite feel Germanic, at least not in these parts which were annexed by Russia - and not in Cracow which was part of Austria either. Poland is herself.

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Warsaw: Palace of Culture, a present from the USSR

Friday, 22 August 2014

More thoughts on Vladimir Putin

There is a case for Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine but people who admire him have forgotten what the KGB was like. Is like.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are a reaction to Western hegemony, and so is Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

The case for Putin is beautifully argued here and is very hard to rebut. The Americans and the rest of us misunderstood diplomacy badly - Kissinger and George HW Bush would not have done so -  but yet Putin is still clearly bad news for his own people as well as for his neighbours.
Strobe Talbott (remember him?) has written an interesting historical / biographical background to Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Yeltsin saved the former USSR from wars, except in poor crucified Chechnya and gave Russia democracy. But it is easy to understand why Russians regard him as a drunken traitor who sold his country and stole a fortune. What is sad but equally easy to understand is that they despise Gorbachev. In a way it is Russia's version of the stab in the back theory whereby Germans blamed the social democrats (and Jews) for defeat in 1918. Gorbachev, for all his folly in imagining Leninism could be made democratic, did make Russians free and ended the Communism that he wanted to reinvigorate. It is not true that all this was inevitable. Had Chernyenko lived twenty years the USSR would have lived with him.

Edward Lucas's book, The New Cold War, was prescient. Hard to believe six years have passed since it came out. But Russian economic success hadn't only been because of rising energy prices. A middle class has been created, though not one that critiques Communism or Putin. Instead Stalin is being rehabilitated but not Lenin. What, as Lenin once asked, is to be done?  


Thursday, 21 August 2014

Lublin and rain

I told Kevin as we drove that had my Romanian friend come with us - he was detained in Bucharest by affairs - he would have wanted to stay out late drinking. Kevin said that in that case it was a good thing he didn't come with us and I felt a great sense of being middle aged. The truth is that this no longer appeals to me either. How did this happen to us?

I had wanted to visit Zamosc since a Pole told me in 1990 on the railway platform in Plovdiv that Cracow was far too touristy and that I should visit Zamosc. All tourists hate other tourists just as all egoists hate other egoists. I have asked many people since then who lived in Poland about Zamosc and all said that they had never been there but always wanted to. Finally today, after 24 years, I made it.

And it is beautiful indeed, built by an Italian architect in the 16th century and undamaged by wars. It's small enough, tiny in fact, to be easily ruined by tourism but it hasn't been. It's still full of useful shops except in the main square which is cafes. One senses that though the architecture is Palladian the wide open spaces of the Ukrainian steppe are close and we are in the far East - the far East of the early modern period. 



Kevin has a great number of strongly held opinions, as an Englishman should so long as they are reasonably original. One is hatred of pigeons. He admires the great beauty of Zamosc but the cruel nails with which architraves are dotted to deter pigeons are what most appeal to him. 

But the real surprise was Lublin, where I am staying, enjoying a nice inexpensive central hotel, the Europa, the oldest hotel in the town and one of the oldest in Poland. Kevin has gone on now somewhere and I am chilling.

Lublin is a, by me, unexpectedly glorious discovery, where I shall linger three nights. Yes it is touristy but very few tourists compared to Vilnius or Cracow, with which it invites comparison. Still the old town is the usual array of Irish pubs and tourist restaurants. On the other hand outside the city walls there is also much to see that is old and beautiful and has not become a museum. There are a lot of wonderful baroque churches.

It has a similar gate to Vilnius's.

Cracow gate, Lublin

Lublin Cathedral
But next year I shall escape tourists altogether in Albania, Georgia or Armenia. They have not been transmuted into tourist industry plant. 

Crimea, though I am sure it is discovered and touristed, would also be fascinating.

When Poland ceased to exist in the 18th century Lublin was taken by Austria but it spent the century after 1815 in Russia and it does not have the Germanic feeling of Central Europe but something more northern and eastern. Its history after 1939 was tragic of course. The town had been German and Jewish but the Jews were wiped out, the Ukrainian and Polish guerrilla armies suppressed and Stalinism imposed.

I began today with a delightfully dark sky, drizzle and a very good Polish breakfast indeed. Black bread which I couldn't find in Ukraine. Wonderful roulades. I recommend the Europa for food. Indeed I love Polish food, which is wonderful. But how can a cuisine which involves copious amounts of dumplings, pancakes and meat not be wonderful? The same goes of course for Ukraine and Russia.

What a wonderful country Poland is - Catholic, gallant, aristocratic. As an Eglishman former great powers speak to me - Poland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal. If only Poland and Sweden could be great powers again in place of Russia. Although actually Sweden is far too socially liberal and Poland is moving in that direction too. 

If only Poland could free Europe from rule by the generation of 1968. But it won't happen. I suppose that is the role for which Vladimir Putin is positioning himself. And so many people I speak to assume that he must be right because the EU the UK and the USA must be wrong. The truth is I feel that the social conservatives are the KGB's new useful idiots,

Rain continues today, not too heavy, which for an Englishman feels right in August and a tremendous liberation. Towns are always at their most beautiful and most characteristic in the rain and rain cools everything down and makes it pleasant to don my linen jacket. I am always happier for practical and philosophical reasons when wearing a linen jacket. I am free. The sun has gone in and I don't have to go out and enjoy myself.  I can relax.

Putin right or wrong

Unfortunately this article, by a distinguished American political scientist, on why the Ukraine crisis is America's fault is mostly true, but it doesn't explain what America should do now or why Ukraine shouldn't be as free and prosperous as Poland.

Putin is the kind of ruler Russians admire and for some good reasons. They admire Peter the Great, Alexander II and frequently Stalin. Putin's behaviour over Ukraine and Georgia is exactly the behaviour of earlier Russian rulers and was precipitated by foolish Americans. It was the kind of behaviour of Frederick the Great or Bismarck completely understood. Nevertheless Putin is on the whole the enemy of Russia, and, for all her very many faults, even in the eyes of conservatives America is on the whole her friend. 

Russia deserves to escape from autocracy, kleptocracy and the KGB but it almost certainly won't happen. Once again de Maistre is right: every country has the government she deserves. 

Cioran aphorism

I cannot admire nihilists like Emil Cioran or Samuel Beckett, but this aphorism of Cioran's is funny.

"In a world without melancholy nightingales would belch."

Here are some more aphorisms that I love.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Back in the UkSSR

I paid five lei (one pound) for a shared taxi from Sapanta to Sighet, a distance of eight or nine miles and there met Kevin who had driven up from Bucharest. We crossed the Ukrainian border in half an hour.

Ukraine is enchanting, like Romania in the Nineties before things were spoilt. The Northern Maramures and the Ukrainian  Carpathians are as beautiful as anywhere I've ever been, included Bosnia, Switzerland or Transylvania. 

We started over the border and in a moment were in Solotvino, the birthplace of Robert Maxwell, the bouncing Czech, who in fact came from here - Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, which was in Czechoslovakia after being in Hungary and before being taken by the USSR.

Our second stop was Dilove, the centre of Europe, at least according to the Austrian imperial government. I remember when John Major became Prime Minister of England and said he wanted Britain to be at the heart of Europe Charles Moore pointed out that the centre of Europe was in fact some miles south-east of Vilnius. However there appears to be more than one suitor for this honour. I hope this one is the real one, outside the EU and in a neglected and forgotten country.

Statues of Bandera, a very interesting tragic figure of whom I want to know more, are seen in small towns along our way. People do not know about the war the aUkrainians fought against the Communists and the Poles during and for many years after the second world war. This war fought by Galicians often in conjunction with the Germans is what creates the hatred for Nazis and fascists in eastern Ukraine and which Vladimir Putin is trying, with only partial success, to exploit.

Like Romania, Ukraine does not have motorways, or not here, and so the journey is enjoyable and we see the country unfold. A poor country but a very good one.

Ivano Frankivsk was the town where we stopped for the first night. A pretty and very relaxing place, with the deep peace of a provincial town in a poor country. The buildings in the centre are Austrian and belle epoque and it is clear that the disappearance of the Austrian Hungarian Empire was a tragedy for everyone, even the beneficiaries. The reason the empire ceased to exist was Woodrew Wilson and his Fourteen Points, the triumph of Gladstonian liberalism. 

Wilson's direct descendents are the American cold warriors and George W. Bush. Wilsonianism is what helped overthrow the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovitch and now has landed us in the crisis we are in with Vladimir Putin. On this I cannot make up my mind. The Americans and the EU handled things stupidly because they are liberals and yet why should the Ukrainians not have the freedom and prosperity of Poland?

I love Ukraine where people seem like normal human beings, not clones and companymen. Communism is in many ways oddly less corrupting than the ideology we have in the West. Of course Ivano Frankivsk is very Western, another lovely Habsburg city built in the first age of globalisation. I pray the Russian invaders leave Ukraine but it seems Ukraine wins even if she loses, for she would lose her backward Russified provinces. In fact Russia will surely not annex those provinces because that would throw Ukraine forever into the arms of the Americans. But even without making this mistake, I think Russia will certainly lose.

I eat blinis nonstop but they don't call them blinis for geopolitical reasons.

We stay at the George in Lvov/Lviv/Lemburg. I like to find the oldest hotel in a city, the one that's a landmark, and hope it's mildly run to seed, shabby genteel. This one is exactly that, like the Londonskaya in Odessa or the Pera Palace in Constantinople before it was renovated and thereby ruined.

We have three nights in Lviv and plenty of time but we don't see nearly all that there is to be seen - the city has about sixty old churches and i think I saw fewer than ten.

I am enthralled by Lvov though it is almost too touristy, almost on the cusp. The Lonely Planet guide I carry with me printed in 2005 says it is is like Prague was before it was renovated and overran but since 2005 much has changed and tourism has increased by 2004 since 2010. Now, though, it is like Cracow was in the early 1990s, somewhat touristy but yet retaining some innocence. 

It feels in places like the Austrian city it was in the 19th century. In other places it feels Italian, truly the Florence of the East that is its nickname. Sometimes it seems the Polish city it also was. 

Two restaurants were recommended to us. One is Kryjivka, a restaurant that would horrify Russians as it is a homage to the partisans who fought the Red Army and sometimes the Germans and Poles in the Second World War. It is underground and you have to know a password before you are allowed to enter. It is fun and full of pictures of Bandera. The food is fine. Kryjivka is a different restaurant, by the way, from this one, which was accused of anti-Semitism.

Kryjivka: underground resistance Banderist restaurant where we ate. They don't let you in unless you know the password which our hotel gave us.
The other restaurant we were recommended was House of Fairy Tales, where each floor of a four room house has the theme of a fairy tale. This seems to be very Ukrainian in its tweeness. I thought it looked enormous fun but my friend Kevin refused to eat there. He said the dwarves put him off. He felt they were being exploited. I find the Ukrainian sense of humour and fantasy delightful.

We went to the prison this morning where the NKVD murdered thousands of people before the Gestapo revealed the NKVD murders and then used it for their own political prisoners and murders. then it became NKVD and KGB again. A very searing experience. This was the organisation that Vladimir Putin wanted to join from early boyhood and which is now running Russia. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is now admired by people who should know better as a social conservative and Christian gentleman.

KGB Gestapo NKVD prison in Lvov where so many died.

St. George's Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, handed back by the Orthodox

Sapanta and the festival

I took a taxi from Satu Mare to Sapanta. It took an hour and a half, the way was beautiful and it cost RON 200 which is just over EUR 40. But rural Romania is changing. In August the villages were crammed with peasants who had emigrated and were returning for their summer holidays. Many of the villages were full of expensive houses built by people who had made money abroad.

Sapanta is famous for its merry cemetery, full of brightly painted tombstones with verses inscribed by a village craftsman, Mr. Stan, from the 1930s onwards with stories of the lives of the deceased. They have no literary value but are a wonderful piece of naive art and make me think of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard and that peerless history of medieval village life in Catalonia, Montaillou. 

The cemetery became a recognised tourist site under Communism and the tombstone maker claimed friendship with Nicolae Ceasescu. The tombstones are notable for the complete absence of references to religion. I am too lazy to write more about the cemetery and append this link to a very good article from the American press. 

We were here for the performance of Sean Davey's orchestral piece last night which sets many epitaphs to music. It was performed behind the cemetery itself. The occasion was haunting. The turnout was not as high as I expected and I was  disappointed for Peter and the organisers though for myself I do not want a Sapanta crowded with outsiders.

Chilly and raining this morning. Sapanta has WiFi and espressos. The old order changeth. The concert in the merry cemetery last night was beautiful. Met many carpet makers, farrier and other craftsmen and all say they love their work. They all seem happy but say that their children have gone to high school and have book learning and won't carry on the craft. The children will get mortgages I suppose and credit cards. As I type this clumsily with my index finger the singing from the church reminds me it is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, a big festivity here, and I must go to Mass.

This is what I wrote last time I was in the Maramures. I can't believe nine years have passed. 

Satu Mare in the dog days

The TV says it will be 38º Celsius in the shade in Bucharest today, which is 100º - and 50º in the sun, which is 122º. The Maramures where I'm off is equally hot. And I left my panama under a tree in Africa.

But a panama would not do for the Maramures, though it would save me from sunburn or sunstroke. I remember gratefully my hat from the last old-fashioned shop in Strada Lipscani which still sells useful cheap things. 

The traditional hat of the Maramures is the clop, which balances on the head and looks much too small. 

It's supposed to be highs 30s Celsius but it doesn't seem so hot to me which proves I have not become a Romanian because every summer hits them like an unlooked for calamity. Every winter ditto.

As i left the office on my way to the airport I asked the woman in the lift if my hat made me look like a shepherd.
'No, an agriculturist [peasant-farmer].'
Mission accomplished.

My plan had been to take the train from Bucharest to Sighet and then be met by someone who would take me to the Maramuresan village of Sapanta and Peter Hurley's festival 'The Long Road to the Merry Cemetery', but I changed my plan for a better one and flew for the same money to Satu Mare. Instead of sleeping on the hot train I hugely enjoyed Satu Mare in the evening and in the immense heat. 

A man wIth a shard-like metal leg is wearing shorts in the cruel heat. Dog days in a small, poor, once grand town. All these handsome German- Jewish- Hungarian towns that got handed out to new countries in 1919 and given new names in the languages of the local peasants. I have visited them from Grodno in Belarus to Subotica in  the Voivodina and Ljubljana in Slovenia.

I strolled around the lovely, badly dilapidated  Hapsburg streets and finally found an appetite and ate good Hungarian food: veal paprikas in a good restaurant with a jazz singer called sternly No Pardon. The intense heat starts to abate as the sun sets. 

Gundel pancakes, Tokay, jazz classics.

I feel wonderfully happy

The proof is that I feel positively benign to the three year old girl at the next table in the restaurant. She is noisy but a mid-Victorian angel.

Satu Mare is exactly my kind of town, romantically decrepit. John Betjeman would have called it dim.

It should be in Hungary of course but if it were how dull it would be, though well painted and cared for.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Harold Wilson???????????????????????

The Royal Mail in Britain have issued eight stamps with great Prime Ministers on them and Harold Wilson is one of them.

Harold Wilson???????????????????????

I remember Stefan Andrei told me 

'Harold Wilson was the best Prime Minister Britain ever had' 
but this was an eccentric view even by the standards of Ceausescu's foreign minister.

I would have put in Pitt the Elder, Palmerston and Disraeli too. Grey yes, Salisbury probably. Attlee yes. Mrs Thatcher probably. Blair no and anyway he is still alive. Wellington and Canning no. 

Asquith was infinitely better than Wilson, but so was almost everyone. I can only think he is there because people still remember him, he won elections and he invented anti-discrimination laws, the most regrettable of his achievements.

What about Ukraine?

"Ukraine is a thorn in the side of anti-war leftists because it completely explodes their claim that there is nothing odd, nothing prejudiced, about their myopic focus on Israel. If these protesters truly were consistent in their loathing of war, especially wars contributed to by our governments, then they would have marched and tweeted and shouted about Ukraine as much as they have done about Israel. But they haven't."
My friend Ruth Dudley Edwards repeats in The Telegraph the point I made in this blog a few days ago.

I don't agree with her, however, that this proves that anti-Israel people are in fact anti-semites. The word 'antisemitism' is bandied around too much, even though I myself have bandied it around a lot.

I think I would be convinced that there was a surging tide of left-wing antisemitism spilling over England if at least some people were complaining that Ed Miliband is Jewish. I do not see anyone doing that. Nor did people say this of Michael Howard. When Ralph Miliband was attacked as 'the man who hated Britain' by the Mail all hell broke loose, something only explicable because people felt it was an antisemitic attack, which it was not.

Ukraine - I am taking neither the Russian nor the US line, but sympathise with Ukraine

The US and the EU were responsible for starting the Ukrainian crisis, by helping overthrow Viktor Yanukovych's government. The West were very foolish. Much of the problem is American idealistic diplomats as in Graham Greene's The Quiet American, a novel about inept American diplomacy in Vietnam.  How much foreigners helped and how crucial that help was nobody knows.

People who prefer Putin to the US and EU - many of these on the eurosceptic right and the anti-immigrant right - reasonably say that the US has no right to complain about Russia intervening in Ukraine after 'we' intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq. This would be a fair point were it not that the same people passionately object to our intervening in Iraq and being in Afghanistan. I objected to the US and UK intervening in Iraq - and the UK and France intervening in Libya - and the attempt to intervene in Syria - and Russia walking into a sovereign state and annexing part of it.

I am not clear why Russia has to see the US and EU as a threat now that Russia, though with a very different political culture from the EU's, does not represent any more a competing ideology. Of course, I know that a victory for the pro-European street protesters in Kiev was a threat to the Putin regime. The last successful revolution in Kiev probably led some years later to similar protests in Moscow. But this is not at all the same as the ideological battle between the Soviet Union and the democratic countries of Europe.

In any event, I am  clear that there is no strategic or economic reason why Russia should want Eastern Ukraine, but the coup in Donetsk is not about fear of a Western invasion of Russia via Ukraine and still less about economics.

People compare Putin to Hitler, a foolish but understandable comparison. Hitler began expanding within three years of coming to power, while Putin did nothing until he got Georgia to attack Russian troops in Georgia in 2008. Another distinction is that Sudeten and Polish Germans wanted to be in the Reich. Russians in Ukraine seem not to want to rebel against Kiev, to Putin's dismay no doubt.

Who gains? 

China for sure, as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard argues here..

Moldova has gained - and may one day join the EU? 

Russia will lose. Europe will lose. Ukraine might well gain in the end by moving into the Western orbit.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Many Yezidis have escaped, many others massacred

Last night we heard that many of the Yezidis had been enabled to escape from the mountaintop where they were corralled by US and Kurdish feint against the ISIS troops.

Food supplies have been dropped by the US and British air forces although, as usually happens, much of it disintegrated when it hit the ground.

I was against most recent interventions but not Rwanda or Bosnia and we should do something this time. Though this is what I thought - hesitantly - about Libya and how wrong I was. We created this horror in Iraq by invading in 2003 and therefore have a responsibility, unlike in 2003.

Conor Burns, a Conservative MP in England may have been right when he said yesterday that the British Government’s response had not been “hard enough or strong enough” and said Parliament should be recalled to discuss the situation. He said,
“Our brother and sister Christians are being massacred, beheaded, buried alive and we are flying over dropping water and food.”

I am glad that some politicians still refer to “Our brother and sister Christians" in multicultural, polycretistic England. 

I dislike impartially most of the pro- and anti- Israel comments but the comments on the Independent newspaper by thickoes with Muslim names that what was happening to Gaza was worse than what was happening to the Yezidis were utterly disgusting. These troglodytes are probably British.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Were the first Muslims Islamists?

I don't know if the Prophet Mohammed, who was certainly a warlord, was an Islamist. That is the great philosophical question of our day and only those who, unlike me, have read the Koran at length can have an opinion. However, the 'four righteous caliphs' who succeeded him presumably were. They conquered the Middle East and the Mediterranean world, until they were stopped in France at the Battle of Tours. 

The Koran compels fighting infidels and the killing of polytheists, but the Koran is full of what seem to non-Muslims contradictions. The same is true of the Bible, of course.

Everyone, including David Cameron, is nowadays an expert on Islam and is telling us that the Islamists misunderstand Islam but we kaffirs are not easily able to judge. Nor even, perhaps, are Muslim scholars who live in Christian or post-Christian countries and who read into the Koran values that obtain in these countries. 

The four righteous caliphs are known to us from Islamic history but it is not by any means clear if this is reliable or whether we really know anything about early Islamic history except a few scraps preserved in (Christian) written sources. I wrote about this here. Some doubt if Mohammed ever existed and suggest that the Arabs first conquered and then created a religion, but this seems inherently unlikely to me and there seems to be some fairly persuasive evidence that Mohammed probably did exist. Especially, though not only, the evidence from this source, a document from a previous war in Gaza.

Yezidis face massacre today

The terrible news of the Yezidis threatened with death today by ISIS, if they do not convert to Islam, deserves I feel to be given as much attention as possible. Every little helps, including this blog. The latest news is here.

There is outrage and a wave of humanitarian feeling around the Western world which has led Mr Obama to intervene - compare the motives which led Mr Putin to intervene in Ukraine. What is remarkable is that I have not heard Muslims condemning what has happened. Lady Warsi seems to be silent, for example.

Robert Fisk, in one of his annoying but pertinent pieces, points out that the danger to the Shia from ISIS did not provoke Mr Obama to intervene but the plight of the Kurds, Christians and Yezidis does. Yes, but the plight of the Yezidis moved the world which hardened its heart and ignored that of the Christians. Defending the Kurds was simply a necessity for the USA - Kurdish Iraq was the one good thing to have come out of the Senecan tragedy of the Second Iraq War.

I was strongly against intervention in Syria and am still more so when I see that ISIS would have benefited mightily from US intervention in support of the so-called moderate rebels. I was moved by humanitarian impulses to want, or sort of want, intervention in Libya - I feared that a certain town that was about to fall to Gaddafi would be massacred. Now I do not believe that this would have happened and that we were being manipulated by sloppy journalism and the British and French governments. But I believe the Yezidis are in great danger. We must help.

Lalish, the spiritual centre of the Yezidis was the most fascinating place I ever visited in my life and has, though a  pagan place, a remarkably palpable spirituality as well as being wonderfully strange.

Much misinformation is going around about the Yezidi religion. It might be the oldest in the world, is millennia older than Islam, rather than being a Muslim heresy. In fact my own suspicion is that Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, was  a Yezidi heretic.

The tenets of this religion are mysterious even to its adherents. Only the priests know many of the teachings which are preserved in oral traditions. Books have been published purporting to be their holy books but are believed to be forgeries written by non Yezidis.

I was told that there is a secret black book in which their teachings are kept  in the village of Qasr 'tzz at-Din. Everything about the Yezidis seems mysterious, in a world with little mystery.

One of their rules is not to eat lettuce. According to a writer in the New York Times writing before the 2003 war, quoting a Yezidi

The caliphs of the Ottoman Empire carried out no fewer than 72 massacres against the Yazidis in the 18th and 19th centuries alone, he explained, with the faithful slain by the thousands in the lettuce fields then dotting northeastern Iraq.

Watching the blood of innocents gush into the greens prompted a lasting aversion to the vegetable, Mr. Juma said, speaking with what sounded like real authority.

That is not quite right, a sect elder spelled out later. Indeed Yazidis suffered persecution, he said, such that one ruthless potentate who controlled the nearby splendid city of Mosul in the 13th century ordered an early Yazidi saint executed. The enthusiastic crowd then pelted the corpse with heads of lettuce. There have been sanctions against salad ever since, the elder intoned.
Ask a government-issued minder from Mosul, a Muslim, and he mutters about how Yazidis believe that the local romaine houses Lucifer, whom he says they worship, so they refuse to chop the heads off the roots.

In the end, the art of dissembling about their religion, perhaps the strongest Yazidi tradition, triumphs. No clear explanation emerges.

As far as I know the greatest Western authority on Yezidis is Eszter Spat who wrote a book with that title that I very highly recommend. Here she is speaking about Yezidis.

Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux has died aged 99

When I was growing up in the 1970s and at university and then at work in the 1980s, I made the great mistake of thinking that the great personalities were dead and I was living in an age of prose. Nothing could have been less the case. Now the 1980s seems as quaint as the Edwardian age: only twenty-something women MPs, an upper house made up mostly of hereditary peers, vicars were men, London clubs were mostly all male and Monsignor Alfred Gilbey and Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux, who seem to have stepped from a Victorian novel, though old even then, were sprightly.  

Only as you get older does life seem to thicken up and become interesting and in becoming interesting, coming to seem like life, it comes for some reason paradoxically to feel like a novel or a film, things which are fictional.

Father Charles-Roux was my confessor. His death has saddened me but came as a surprise because I had assumed he was no longer with us. He had seemed very ancient when I knew him, before I emigrated to Romania. Damian Thompson knew him well and writes about him here. 

I wish very much that I had known him outside the confessional and Mass. When he celebrated the Mass in the Tridentine Rite, alone one afternoon, he seemed to be gripped by a remarkable religious ecstasy.

I wish I had gone to see him in Rome. When young he had been a friend of the future Pope Paul VI and had known the future Pope John XXIII. He told me that both lapsed into the heresy of modernism, of thinking that the Church should adapt to the world rather than the other way around.

He also gave me the good advice always to read the King James translation of the Bible. I think many Catholics feel that the Bible is a Protestant book and they should read the Douay translation. Certainly the King James translation is a Protestant one but it is the glory of English literature, comparable with Shakespeare.

Father Alexander Lucie-Smith wrote about Father Charles-Roux here to mark his 98th birthday.

Here is Father Charles-Roux's obituary from today's Sunday Telegraph. 

Protecting children from Homer

A friend of mine (he votes Labour by the way) give me permission to quote an item he posted on his Facebook wall a couple of days ago.

Yesterday I bought a Kindle edition of Homer's 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey'. I was peeved to discover that I'd wasted my money (all 77 pence of it) on the wrong version: I thought I was getting Chapman's 17th century verse translation, but instead I'd purchased a rather dull modern prose version from Wilder Publications of Radford, Virginia. I was also astonished to read this on the flyleaf (if an ebook can have a flyleaf): 'This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work'.

This is frightening. I bought an autobiography of an Arab slave trader which came with a similar health warning. The publisher had thought of editing out (perfectly objective) comments on, I think from memory, Africans but had decided in the end to leave them in. And this is everywhere - a kind of incipient Stalinism.

Holy Grail not found in pub in Herefordshire

I have loved things Arthurian since earliest boyhood. (Robin Hood, on the other hand always left me completely cold, which perhaps suggests I was a born conservative.)  I devoured Malory when I was eleven. This news item is not Idylls of the King but hey.

One day King Arthur will awake from the cave in which he sleeps and return, when Britain is at her moment of greatest peril. Could be fairly soon, the way things are going.

Quotations of the day

The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left. "The wages of sin is death" is Saint Paul's way of saying the same thing.

Other people and (if you happen to believe in God) God or (if you happen not to) the world, society, nature—whatever you call the greater whole of which you're part—sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self.
For example, the sin of the Pharisee is not just (a) his holier-than-thou attitude, which pushes other people away, but (b) his secret suspicion that his own holiness is deficient too, which pushes part of himself away, and (c) his possibly not so subconscious feeling that anybody who expects him to be all that holy must be a cosmic SOB, which pushes Guess Who away.

Sex is sinful to the degree that, instead of drawing you closer to other human beings in their humanness, it unites bodies but leaves the lives inside them hungrier and more alone than before.

Religion and unreligion are both sinful to the degree that they widen the gap between you and the people who don't share your views.

The word charity illustrates the insidiousness of sin. From meaning "a free and loving gift" it has come to mean "a demeaning handout."

Original sin means we all originate out of a sinful world, which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves the center of the universe, pushing away centrifugally from that center everything that seems to impede its freewheeling. More even than hunger, poverty, or disease, it is what Jesus said he came to save the world from.

Frederick Buechner

"So you hate sex?" asked Cora.

"I detest it"

"People like you should be in the army"

"I'm a conscientious objector" I said.

"You would be", Cora said, shaking her hair scornfully.

"I'm frightfully conscientious" I said, "I object to absolutely everything."

"And especially sex?"

"With all of my heart"

Krishna came with us to the door.

"You really mustn't mind Cora" he said.

"She means no harm. You see she's a virgin. it irks her."

"It irks me too" I replied.

Julian Maclaren-Ross, 'The Virgin'

'Whom are you, he asked, for he had been to night school.'

George Ade

Friday, 8 August 2014

Changing my mind on Gaza and Iraq

I am not following Gaza much and I do not claim to be an expert. I had assumed that Israel had no choice but to attack Gaza, but this article from the Wall Street Journal, a paper which broadly supports Israel, suggests Egypt and Israel in partnership provoked the cruel war. The article is worth reading.

Clearly, instead of being surrounded by enemies, Israel has friends in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Netanyahu rushed to blame the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys on Hamas, which set off the chain reaction of reprisals. But this is not important any more, as Hamas's activities and the tunnels are an unanswerable retrospective justification for the Israeli attack. It seems Hamas was planning to use the tunnels to attack Israel.

As Con Coughlin writes today in The Daily Telegraph:

Captured Hamas fighters have provided details of the planned September 24 assault when militants intended to attack Jewish communities and capture as many Israelis as possible. 
This would certainly explain why Israeli military officials are now reporting that the tunnels, apart from storing large numbers of missiles and heavy explosives, were also stocked with tranquillisers, handcuffs, syringes, ropes and all the other paraphernalia used for dealing with captives.
However, for all this, I am not sure whether the street credibility that the invasion gives Israel in its neighbourhood outweighs the loathing of Israel that it provoked, not in the world at large, which perhaps does not matter to Israel, but in the USA.

I suppose that Hamas is in power in Gaza because Likud failed to come to an agreement with Abbas, who had acceded to every Israeli precondition. Israel responded by accelerated settlement building. I presume that Netanyahu did this for fear of people further to the right than he is. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe a deal with Fatah would prevent Hamas one day coming to power in the West Bank.

Behind the story is demographics. Religious Jews are having more children than secular ones and religious Jews are more right-wing than secular ones - they believe they have a God-given right to the West Bank.

I am still much more interested, though, in ISIS in Iraq and what Mr. Putin is doing in Ukraine. 

I have changed my mind on Iraq too. A humanitarian intervention is necessary to save Yezidis, Christians and Muslims from ISIS. 

I recognise this humanitarian impulse, though, was the same impulse that made me want England to intervene in Libya which led to disastrous results. The same kind heartedness led me to want Presidents Mubarak and Assad, at one point, to be toppled. How wrong those ideas were.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

This is much more important than Gaza: 40,000 Yazidis are trapped on a mountain top, threatened with murder by ISIS

This news is quite terrible and much worse than Gaza. Up to 40,000 Yazidis, adherents to one of the oldest religions in the world, are trapped on a mountain top in Iraq by the Islamist army ISIS army and beginning to die. ISIS we are told want them to convert to Islam and, if they do not, want to murder them.

Messrs. Bush and Obama are to blame. Saddam would have made short work of ISIS. But allocating blame does not matter in the least now. What can be done if anything to protect the Yazidis?

The only thing I know to do is to publicise this impending tragedy as widely as possible. Condemnation by Muslim panjandrums would help. Perhaps Lady Warsi will speak out.

Please read this beautiful post about the Yazidis.

I was among the Yazidis four years ago. What I wrote about them then is here.

Young Israeli women sexually aroused by the killing of children

A nubile Israeli woman posts that she was 'near orgasm' hearing that the Israeli army had killed four children.
Apparently there have been several posts and tweets along these lines by young Israeli women. It reminds me of seventeenth century French young ladies getting military men to talk about rape and murders they had committed. I forget where I read this - was it the Memoirs of the Comte de Tilly or somewhere else?

It's not possible to know if these tweet and posts purportedly by young Israeli women are genuine but I found the one above on the Facebook page of a young pro-Israeli woman who enjoyed, she said, reading about killing children.

I know that young women sometimes are aroused by violence. I can think of more than one who told me they found violence arousing. One woman I knew was very aroused when the Israeli she had dinner with told her that during his military service he killed Arab women and children. She was disappointed that he said he had not raped the women, explaining that he was not attracted to Arab women. He may very well have been lying, of course. I incline to think he was, but really have no idea.

This site says:

 Many Israeli Facebook users have posted violent and disturbing content on their personal accounts. Talya Shilok Edry, who has more than one thousand followers, posted the following “status”: “What an orgasm to see the Israeli Defense Forces bomb buildings in Gaza with children and families at the same time. Boom boom.”

The same Facebook user,  referring to  the murdered sixteen-year-old Muhammad Abu Khudair, who was kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli youths, is said to have said:
 “Sweet settlers, next time you kidnap an Arab boy, call me and let me torture him!! Why do you get to have all the fun?”
One more tweet:

#ZionStandUp for Israeli @ashlisade: "Kill Arab children so there won't be a next generation" https://twitter.com/ashlisade/status/487204733669498880 

There may well be other women, I am sure there are, in fact, who enjoy reading about Jewish children being murdered or burnt alive.  

Women are, for biological reasons, the compassionate and kind sex, which is why they seem superior to men in the eyes of people like me who consider kindness and compassion the two greatest virtues, but they are also the cruel, and sometime even sadistic, sex, also no doubt for biological reasons. Cruelty is a very unmanly, rather than very unfeminine, vice even though men are frequently cruel.

The mistake our age makes is to underestimate and trivialise sexual desire which has roots as deep as the soul itself and therefore very twisted roots because people are very twisted. Only liberalism prevents this being a self-evident truism.

On the other hand, one former IDF woman soldier wants to make peace by making love to Arabs. Her analysis of the situation seems more spot-on than most of the commentators that I have read.

"I think Gaza is beyond saving at this point. West Bank sure could be ok, but Gaza all loves Hamas which will lead them into worse and worse conditions. "