Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Log 363: Still going strong: the Wally Byam caravan, huge gatherings of aluminum RVs, is still at it, year after year, roaming the continent, as I saw them 40 years ago.

Suddenly, this morning, watching TV in Dubrovnik, I came across this random story about the Wally Byam caravan. That really took me back.

In 1969 when I was covering the British Columbia provincial election I was heading north one morning through the interior of the province, driving a hire car, fresh from covering an election meeting by the Premier W.A.C. (Wacky) Bennett in Salmon Arm the night before,  at the end of which we reporters had chased him through the corridors of a school to get a quote from  him about the local Social Credit candidate who had just been convicted of beating his wife, when I seemed to notice that I was having to pass a unusual number of caravans on the road north from Kamloops towards Prnce George. 

(Wacky Bennett, incidentally, was the only man I met in British Columbia who believed he would win more seats than before, and it turned out he was right, even the wife-beater of Salmon  Arm sweeping to a triumph at the polls. The most surprised man in B.C was Tom Berger, leader of the left-leaning NDP, who was convinced he was going to be swept into power by the electorate. I described Berger ironically, in a dispatch to my newspaper, as “the man British Colombians have found who will save them from socialism,” but even I have to admit that although he would have made a great premier, in defeat he became an even greater ornament to Canadian democracy as a Supreme Court judge, a fighter in the courts for the rights of indigenous people, and the initiator of a sensible delay in development of the Canadian north to give aboriginals time to get ready to absorb the shocks.)
These caravans, of course were somewhat annoying, because to pass a caravan being hauled behind a car on a fairly busy country road that was far from straight, was rather tediously delaying. I did notice with some surprise, that all of the caravans I passed were similar in construction, being odd-looking aluminum models, all of which bore the trade mark, Airstream. After putting five or six behind me, and still finding more looming up ahead, I began to count them, and before I had reached Williams Lake, some 300 kilometres along the way, I had counted something like 87 of them.  When Williams Lake came within radio distance I picked up their local station and heard an announcer saying, “Welcome to the Wally Byam caravan, headed north towards our town, where everything is ready to receive them at the local campground. These folks  are making their way north, and will be spending the night in our town, where we want to assure them of the warmest possible welcome.”
I could hardly believe either my eyes or my ears: this immense trail of caravans, or RVs (recreation vehicles), as they call them in the United States, had collected somewhere in the southern U.S., and had taken off all together --- more than 400 of them in all --- on a trip to Alaska, stopping along the way every few hundred kilometres to polish their vehicles, refresh themselves, eat, drink and be merry before rising early the next morning and continuing their journey --- together,

This was a holiday?  I could hardly credit that so many people could foregather with the intention of travelling together for week after week, in a line, staying overnight crammed like sardines in small-town campgrounds, exemplifying a Wally Byam maxim that it is not the destination that counts, but the journey to it. 
The small towns welcomed them for the money they left behind as they shopped for provisions in the local stores. By the time I wearily counted off my  87th, Williams Lake finally came in sight, and the line of caravans ceased just as suddenly, having turned off apparently, into their camping place for the night. I picked up my speed  and made good time over the following 100 kilometres to Quesnel, which, presumably, had lost out in the competition for the favours of the Wally Byam caravans.
To hear this morning that the Wally Byam caravan still exists,  now, as then, supported by a huge 6,000 member club of enthusiasts (a club it is tough to get into you: have to own an Airstream to be admitted), proves that this wanderlust, this nervous, tense scratching at the ground by impatient Americans anxious to get going, has not diminished in the  44 years since I first shared the road with them.
Truly, they are a strange people, the Americans, as the revelations of Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and Thomas Drake keep reminding us day by day.
Only yesterday did I hear their leader Barack Obama, addressing a youth gathering in South Africa, warn these youngsters that they must not indulge in violence in search of their political and social objectives. What unmitigated gall! Is this not the man who commands the biggest instrument of violence in the world today, in the service of the U.S. state, and has he not shown an unexampled readiness to use it in pursuit of his objectives?
Strange, these Americans.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, June 28, 2013

My Log 362: In Dubrovnik, a Clock That Can’t Make Up Its Mind, as a result of a feud between two 200-year-old men, centuries ago

Dubrovnik has existed as a town for more than 1000 years --- something like 1360 years, to be more exact ---  but so far as I know I am the only person who has ever mentioned the phenomenon of The Clock That Can’t Make Up Its Mind.
This is the so-called town clock that strikes every hour around the day. But it has a curious characteristic, that, having struck, say 5 am at what we would take to be the real time, five minutes later it goes through the whole procedure yet again, without any modification to indicate that the actual time has changed in the interim.
How could one account for this puzzling eccentricity? Could it be that the clock feels the pressure of the other two bell towers belonging to the Dominican and Franciscan monasteries which have also existed for many hundreds of years and which both tend to burst out in a paroxysm of bell ringing at verious times of the day. Could a clock have feelings about a thing like that? It is hard to imagine, for example, Big Ben just taking it on the chin if it was challenged by some nearby upstart with a burst of apparently purposeless ringing.
As usual in Dubrovnik, it is rewarding to look back in history for the answer. The decision to buld a clock was made by the city’s Great Council on November 28, 1385, and the contract to build it was awarded to a clockmaker from the Italian city of Lecce on May 13, 1389. It was not erected where it is now, at the very centre of the town but was almost destroyed in 1435 by a gunpowder explosion in the building which then housed it. The city fathers then decided to build a clock tower, work on which began in 1444, but a after a series of mishaps a new clock was ordered from a Bergamo clockmaker. This worked well for some years, but was replaced by a clock from a firm in Padua.
When the 1444 clock wass built a local man, Luca Zurgovic made two colored wooden human figures whose job it was to strike the bell when animated by a mechanism attached to them. These wooden men wore out within ten years, and what happened then is a matter for controversy ever since. Two fellows called Maro and Baro took their place, ordered to strike the clock on the hour regularly, but whether they did so or not is the point at question.
Local gossip that I have uncovered accidentally (---- that’s a whole story in itself: I was sitting idly at the foot of a statue the other day and noticed a loose stone on the pavement below my feet; I removed the stone, found an ancient  document, with, surprisingly, a translation into English, and uncovered the fact that Maro and Baro had been engaged in a feud within a year or so of their appointments to the clock-striking job.  So ferocious was their rivalry --- one had to strike from the right side the other from the left ---- that they eventually began to strike at different times thus giving rise to the current situation, a feud that has lasted through history since 1448 or thereabouts, a mere 565 years.
According to the document I uncovered, which now rests with the City Archivist, and can be examined on request,  the two worthy citizens involved in this quarrel lived on and on, their mutual hatred keeping them alive for a period previously unrecorded in human history. It is hard to believe it, but the two gentlemen were still recorded as being alive, at their posts in the clock tower every day, sleeping on palliasses at a lower level, and springing up to strike, hour in and hour out as one might say, each at his accepted time, which during all 200 years until their deaths in the 17th century, always varied by five minutes.
Throughout this extraordinary reign, the mutual envy of the two men actually turned them green, so that today, representations of them that are still in place are known to the citizenry as the “zelenci”, which apparently means green men in the local lingo.
As to whether the figures that still strike the bells are models or are actually the mummies of the two original occupants of this post from the fifteenth century, some controversy has existed over the years, and the matter is still, in many minds, not quite settled.

The clock tower was gravely damaged, along with the rest of the town, by a huge earthquake in 1667, when it is thought that either their sons took over their posts, or some other close members of their families. This is but one of the 60 earthquakes that have rocked this city over the centuries, the most recent of them being in 1979, which also did a lot of damage.
Another surprising fact arises from the perusal of the historical record: the clock tower that stands so proudly today at the confluence of the town’s two main streets is not an ancient monument at all, but was built --- rebuilt would be more correct --- from top to bottom in 1929, the original towers having so lost their bearings through earthquake damage as to be in danger of falling down.
At the time of this rebuiding apparently a major civic debate  as to the correct time for the bells to be struck was unresolved, and even the unanimity common during the Communist years did not succeed in arriving at a conclusion. In fact, the two present occupantrs of the post were in danger of being damaged as a result of the Serbian bombardment of the city in the 1990s, so there is some reason to believe that they were replaced by copies that are less valuable.
So today we are left with Maro and Baro or representations of them, striking every hour still twice, at different times.
Truly, this is a clock that Can’t Make Up Its Mind, the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Log 361: Norman Lewis, a wonderful observer of life and its foibles and follies ---- I have just read four more of his books

Cover of "The World, the World (Thorndike...
Cover via Amazon

Cover of "Jackdaw Cake"
Cover of Jackdaw Cake
Several years ago a friend in Ottawa loaned me a book called Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis, whose writings I had followed, off and on, since I first read him in the New Statesman during my first stay in England in the early 1950s. I read the book --- a wonderful account of Naples as it came under the reign of Vito Genovese, former head of the American Mafia, who was installed by the Americans as they took over the city on their victorious march northwards through Italy towards the end of the war. Lewis, a mere junior officer in the British Army’s Intelligence establishment, was responsible for weeding out the reliable citizens of Naples from the unreliable.
I gave the book back, and a few years later came across a remaindered copy at a local W.H. Smith’s, but put it back, and moved on.  Thereafter, I kept kicking myself for not having bought it and it took me 20 years or more to find another copy, which I now have. I was entranced by the book, (described by Julian Evans in his 2003 obituary of Lewis as “a hauntingly comic memoir”) --- my memory of it being that although Lewis found the behaviour of most of the Italians he met impossible, he finished his year there with an undying love for them, for their attitudes to life, and for everything to do with Italy and  Italians.
Lewis, a self-made writer, died at the age of 95, and even in his last decade he turned out five or six notable books dealing with the travelling that had proven to be one of the purposes of his life.
Having read him with unalloyed delight for so many years, I have to say I agree with the verdict of Julian Evans, who wrote on his death that “his magnificent, exact rendering of the world, in his mordant, civilised and generous prose, has no comparison.”
My friend in Dubrovnik has a raft of his books in her library, and I have recently spent a couple of weeks reading four of them that I had missed. They include the two volumes of his autobiography, Jackdaw Cake, published in 1985, and The World, The World, published in 1996.
Although his books describe the follies and cruelties of this world, as well as the delights, he was seldom one to give way to indignation, something that seems to have arisen from the peculiar nature of his childhood. His parents were convinced spiritualists, and the section of his first autobiography under the heading The Other Side, is probably the best description ever written of this fake cult, that is believed and apparently practised by so many people. He deals with such strange beliefs from time to time throughout his books, but if he does not approve of them, he usually dismisses them gently with a word or two, more or less in passing. In fact, he loved the odd things that people do, and described in great detail  many of the weird customs of tribal people in India --- genuine indigenous people, of whom there were when he was writing about them, some 55 million, a number that is staggering when put alongside the surviving few hundred thousand of North American tribal people.  Though not himself religious, Lewis accepted religious observances, especially those that people had had passed down to them over the centuries, and he made it one of his purposes in life to see things, places and people that he realized might not last much longer, as modern life impinged on them, and shamelessly thrust them aside or destroyed them.
Almost the  only real indignation he expressed was confined to his description of the ruthless assault made on the native tribes of Brazil, many of which were physically eliminated from the earth to make way for loggers and miners, and cattle-men and others who wanted the lands they lived on, and the trees and forests from which they had always obtained their livelihoods. He made a special trip to Brazil in the late 1960s and returned with a 12,500 word article that was published by The Sunday Times, and that aroused such a response as to lead to the formation of Survival International, which by the 1996 existed in 65 countries to defend  the interests of tribal peoples who are, as we know under pressure everywhere. Lewis, the most modest of writers,  permits himself to reprint a statement by Survival International acknowledging the impact of his article --- and he just leaves it at that.
He did, however, also deplore the activities of what he casually, and repeatedly describes as “the genocidal” American fundamentalist evangelists, some of whom told him they weren’t concerned with the physical survival of the indigenous, but only to ensure that they have accepted Jesus as their saviour before being wiped from the face of the earth.
The range of Norman Lewis’s books is quite amazing: he wrote about pre-modern Spain, focusing on a fishing village, Farol, on the north-east coast,  where he hoped he had found a place that would guard him against the excesses of the modern industrial machine, only of course to be disappointed.  (His book on that experience, one of his best, is called Voices of the Old Sea.) He wrote about Burma, Indo-China, Haiti, Sicily (his book on the mafia, The Honored Society,  was accepted as the best description of that organization available to Western readers), and Guatemala, which he says is the most beautiful country he had ever seen, although  brutalized by a succession of American-supported strongmen who were untrammelled by any cncern for law or justice.
He made four trips to India, seeking out especially the tribal peoples who were under such pressure from the modern Indian government, and still are apparently. In this he describes with a dead-pan solemnity the many Indian customs that tie them to their multiplicity of gods. The name of that book is A Goddess in the Stones, and he admits in a later book (almost as an aside) that the particular goddess to whom every obeisance had to be paid before undertaking a trip of any kind may have been just a bundle of stones lying on the ground, but nevertheless, in the minds of the custom-bound, caste-bound, tradition-bound Indians, that bundle of stones contained the goddess Kali.
Though himself not religious ---  the training he got in resisting the pressure he came under from his parents to accept Spiritualism stood him in good stead --- nevertheless he was able to describe in detail religious observances that he seemed to regard as precious simply because they had been handed down through the centuries from person to person, right until our present day.  Whereas in similar circumstances I would have been frothing at the mouth in indignation, Norman was able to stand aside, more or less, at least enough to describe things with an air of detachment and wonder.
It occurred to me having read these four books, that he stood at the polar opposite  from John Pilger, an excellent writer and  remarkably courageoous reporter, who froths with indignation in almost every line he writes. Norman Lewis gets perhaps the same result, yet he remains always a  quiet, almost invisible presence. (In fact, one of his self-deprecating jokes was that he was the only person he knew who could walk into a room  and leave it half an hour later without anyone else in the room knowing he had been there.)
He is that kind of a writer, too, which perhaps accounts for his not having ever become as well-known abroad as he was in England, swhere such good judges as Graham Greene considered him one of the finest writers of the twentieth-century, and, in one famously, much-quoted quip, Auberon Waugh, who said he  was “outstandingly the best travel writer of our age, if not since Marco Polo.”
If anyone is interested in embarking on an examination of his work, he can be found on the Internet, and his books are, for the most part, still easily available.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Log 360 Spurred on by a kindly reader, I make another intrepid walk about Dubrovnik, and find fumes, noise and all the ailments of modern life

A kindly reader in Ottawa has written thanking me for “the lovely walkabout in Dubrovnik,” referring to my spectacular achievement of at last, after 17 years in operation,  finding out how to get my pictures on to my blog.  I, of course, have interpreted this as a show of massive public approval for my project, so I have, in face of this overwhelming evidence of public demand bowed to the immense pressure and today have undertaken another walk, to illustrate something more of the peculiar civic structure of this tiny, tourist-obsessed city.
So this exercise is dedicated to Helen Deachman, who set me out on this nightmare journey. And a nightmare it was, for, by just stepping outside the huge walls that encircle the old city (a rather small area) one is immediately plunged into every urban ailment to which modern life is prone.
Dubrovnik has this peculiarity in that people who live here keep telling you it is a city of hardly 1,000 souls, whereas anyone can see that the city, which sprawls over the neighbouring hills, has a population  variously estimated at between 50,000 and 75,000 people.
The locals deal with that by calling various parts of the city outside the walls by several names, as if each had nothing whatsoever to do with Dubrovnik. So, today, to illustrate this phenomenon, I have undertaken to walk through one of the gates in the walls to what is called locally Pile, (pronounced Peel-eh) an area where real life as it is known elsewhere begins, with its charming admixture of tourist touts, huge diesel-spouting buses, pizza-joints, and tourist hotels.  This is also the takeoff point for a stroll up the road to what is called locally Gruz, (pronounced Groozh) built around a large harbour, capable of handling the biggest ships into which most of the larger cruise ships of the present day moor to disgorge their thousands of tourist visitors, who then have to scramble into buses to be taken over the hill to the old town, recently described as the tourist jewel of Croatia (as it has long been described as the jewel of the Adriatic.)
Some ships, as seen in my last walk, anchor outside the old city, and disgorge their passengers in tenders, and I have found in recent days that one peculiarity of this system is that if a ship is staying put overnight, which some do, very often it will give vent to a burst of fireworks to keep its otherwise bored passengers amused (at least, I suppose that is the idea). This also has the effect of waking from our sleep those of us who have retired at a decent hour.
Okay, this morning I decided I had to begin my tour with a shot of a church that overhangs the street giving on to our house.  (I've since been told this is a cathedral and I cannot call it a church. Wow! That's a new one on me, although I do confess to not being up on ecclesiastical nomenclature, not even to a slight degree.)

 This is one of the many churches around which tourists are ushered by their guides. I have no idea why anyone should want to spend their holidays visiting churches but there is no accounting for taste, I guess. I have no idea, either, of the name of this particular church, or of any other of the dozens of churches around which flit their attending staff of monks or priests or whatever they are called, and (I use here a favorite saying of my favorite travel writer, Norman Lewis), “shuffling nuns.”  (I have to admit Lewis seemed to think of shuffling nuns as evidence of civiization, whereas I have a different view of them).

 On the way out to the Stradun, I took a small detour to our small local market, quite a thriving little market at the
height of summer, whose characteristic is that the merchants wrap it up at noon, and give way to the tables of restaurants run by the pub that borders the square. Another feature of this square is that just before noon pigeons gather in their hundreds, as if waiting for something. Soon what they are waiting for appears, a man carrying a bin of food that he throws out on to the stones around the restaurants. The pigeons show their intense competitiveness (which, as you know, is all the rage in the modern world), as they jump and squawk and peck at each other in their attempts to get a few seeds of grain, and in a matter of five minutes they have disposed of all of it, and then go about their business elsewhere, leaving the square to the diners.
Next, the Stradun. I tried a picture of this in my last effort but it was very poor, showed little of the glories of this impressive street, bounded as it is at either end, naturally, with churches, bishop’s palaces and such other impedimenta of such priest-bound societies (of which any readers I may have in Quebec must have bitter memories). 

This picture (above) is rather better than my last, athough relatively devoid of people. You will notice the delivery vans, the only sort of vehicles that are allowed within the walls of Dubrovnik, the old city. They travel circumspectly and I have never heard of one of them running over a single tourist, although I imagine their drivers must be tempted from time to time.

Access to Outer Dubrovnik, if I may coin a term, is through this rather narrow gate (right). Sometimes the traffic of tourists arriving in the city from this direction --- having come off ships  moored in the large harbour of Gruz – is so intense that it has to be moderated by guidance ropes. I am almost afraid to mention it, but up off the camera on the right of this picture is yet another church, palace or whatever they   call these ecclesiastical places.

At Pile, the pictures (below) speak for themselves: we are immediately in the full horror of the modern world, with buses disgorging their diesel fumes, two-stroke engines exploding in your ears and tourists, endless tourists, having emerged from the buses that have just arrived from Gruz, waiting around to find their guardian or guide, who should be somewhere holding up a number on a stick. Dubrovnik has many guides, speaking many languages, and the only mystery is how so many people from so many disparate cultures, have been persuaded that this is any way to spend a holiday.

 There is always a good admixture of Japanese tourists (below), who seem always to be well-dressed, slim, camera-laden, cheerful, and determined not to draw attention to themselves or create any trouble.

 Fighting one's way out of the tourist crush, one comes to the road (at right) leading off to Gruz, with the Hiton Hotel on the right.

 The road that leads up the hill towards Gruz is quite narrow, the footpath even narrower, and the danger of stepping momentarily into the roadway to let another pedestrian past is, I would judge, immense, because it is quite possible that just as you make that fatal step, some lunatic in a car behind you has decided to break the law by taking advantage of a momentary pause in oncoming traffic to  gun past a slower-moving vehicle, thereby coming close to mowing you down. Lights out.  

As one can see, behind the walls lining the road --- always behind the walls in Dubrovnik ---  there are splendid  vistas. Unfortunately, some of my attempts to take photograhs did not succeed, notably one I tried to take of an odd coffee shop whose seats are all made from disused baths. (The reason for this failure is that these pictures are taken by the cheapest camera money can buy, and when the sun is shining brightly as it was today, nothing shows on the monitor, nothing at all, and one can never even be sure that the camera is turned on. In this case it obviously had shut itself off.) Another taken alongside a very good restaurant-bar of my acquaintance also unfortunately did not come out, for it was intended to 

show at the end of the road a towering building which I believed (wrongly, as it turns out) to be the local headquarters of Rochester University --- yes the Rochester University from the United States. Apparently US universities are busy with their cultural imperialist mission all over eastern Europe, bringing  their specialized, US-angled knowledge to the local intelligensia, emerging, as they just are, from the horrors of their Communist brainwashing. Nothing like brainwashing: one’s attitude to it depends which side is doing it, and what you think of them.

Next (right) the brand-new headquarters of the University of Dubrovnik. Pristine new. I am not sure it has ever had any students, but it is ready to accept them when and if they come.

Further on, the road widens a bit and we get some rather spectacular glimpses out over the sea, across to a new, Turkish-owned hotel (the Turks seem to be into the hotel business here in a big way) that seems to have a safe swimming place delineated where one does not have to dive off rocks into dangerous depths --- as is  the custmary situation on those rock-piles that they call beaches in Dubrovnik. And (left) we look back along the typical Dubrovnik coastline towards the city we have just left behind.
Here, just before we plunge down to Gruz, we come across the place  where Dubrovnik lovers, being left behind as their paramour goes off to sea, establish their indissoluable bonds by putting up messages locked into place until the lover returns. (The messages have all disappeared, while the locks remain, as can be seen).
About this point, the footpath I was following disappeared and I had to negotiate my way carefully down the hill to Gruz, never mind taking pictures, rather, watching out for my life here (again), negotiating the heavy traffic, and the cars parked everywhere, even on the pavements, forcing pedestrians out into the road.

I had been to Gruz before, when the harbour was full of big ships. But today, no big ships were in evidence. And not only that, the beautiful markets, for fresh produce, and fish, have been moved away, denuding the wharf area of its major attraction.
However, I can show a few shots of some rather large yachts --- indeed, some of them are almost obscenely ostentatious, as is ot unusual among the rich of this world.

On my way wearily home, up and down the hill, once again on the narrow sidewalks provided, I paused at the top to take a couple of pictures that give some idea of the spectacular depth of the cliffs around this unusual town, 

Dubrovnik, regretting only that I failed to get a picture of the (far-off, other end of the harbour) Tudjman bridge, which will always stand in my memory as typical of Croatia in that it has been named after a man who raised, in one of his books, genocide as a perfectly acceptable act of political decision-making.

So that's it, folks. Hey, ma, look, no hands! I done it again!
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, June 10, 2013

My Log 359: Al Jazeera throws imense light, and some sense of hope, on the world’s most intractable problem: the future of Palestine

Palestine (Photo credit: Zachary Baumgartner)
English: World War I enlistment poster from Ca...
English: World War I enlistment poster from Canada. Poster shows a soldier cutting the bonds from a Jewish man, who strains to join a group of soldiers running in the distance and says, "You have cut my bonds and set me free - now let me help you set others free!" Above are portraits of Rt. Hon. Herbert Samuel, Viscount Reading, and Rt. Hon. Edwin S. Montagu, all Jewish members of the British parliament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Al Jazeera has just concluded a four-part TV series on what the Palestinians call their Nakba (the Catastrophe), that is to say, the decision made in the depths of the First World War, to hand over their lands to the small but thereafter rapidly-growing Jewish population, a decision that has since been accepted widely as something like a reparation paid to the Jews for the Holocaust they suffered during the Second World War (that doesn’t make much sense, but then, nothing about this conflict does.)
The series put the primary responsability for this decision on the British government who, in 1917 issued the Balfour declaration, dedicating Palestine as the future homeland of the Jewish people. At the time there were only a few thousand Jews living in Palestine, no more than 10 per cent of the population, of which the other 90 per cent was mostly Arab.
To conclude the series the network gathered three well-known historians who, it turned out, represented what one of them called the New History version of the Jewish-Palestinian imbroglio, and they discussed the issue for an hour under the moderator Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s notably competent senior world affairs analyst, more frequently seen as moderator of the series called Empire, in which he discusses the problems of the world’s super-powers (more often than not, the United States).
The three experts called in by Al Jazeera were Professors
Avi Shlaim, author of some seven books on this subject, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, a man who has joint British and Israeli citizenship, and once served in the Israeli army; Professor Rosemary Hollis, former head of the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and now with City University, London; and James Renton, senior lecturer in history at Edge Hill University in Britain. I had never heard of these people before, and was most impressed by their calmness of manner and the complete grasp they appeared to have on the matter under discussion. When I looked them up on the internet I realized they appear to be universally hated in Israel, articles criticizing them being heavy with innuendo about their sloppy thinking, and even going so far as to describe some of their utterances as “anti-Israel slime.”
Bishara asked them what was wrong with the customary Israeli assumption that was once almost the world’s accepted wisdom, that in this struggle the Jews were the victims, that they had been attacked by the united Arab world in 1948, who were driven off, and that most of the Palestinian refugees had left of their own accord?
Shlaim said the “myths” that had grown out of the 1948 war had become exposed to more rigorous examination as documentation had become available from multiple sources, which had proved that much of accepted wisdom was not based on facts. In fact, the Arab force that attacked Israel in 1948 was bitterly divided, and “probably the most ramshackle coalition in the history of warfare.” The Hashemite strand of the Arabs, centred on Jordan, were motivated by their desire to  establish a Greater TransJordan nation, and the Lebanese were afraid of the intentions of Syria to create a Greater Syria, and there were other rivalries that made their enterprise less than united, and spectacularly unsuccessful.
The one thing that cannot be denied, said Professor Shlaim, was that 750,000 people left Palestine, and that ever since they have been refugees --- that was the greatest movement of refugees known in the world to that time.
Professor Hollis wanted it to be clearly understood that the burden of carrying responsability for the present impasse between the two sides should not be carried by the Palestinians and the Jews alone: the burden rested heavily on Britain, she said, who got out in 1944 because they did not see any possibility of solving the conflict that they had themselves created; and furthermore, they needed to be able to use the port of Haifa if they were to withdraw their forces, and so they made the deal with the Jewish authority to take over the reins of office to ensure that they could manage their departure. Ernest Bevin, of the Attlee government, was foreign secretary of the time, and was not particularly keen on handing over power to the Jewish authorities, said Mr Renton; indeed  later Bevin described the decision as the worst mistake of international diplomacy of the twentieth-century.
When Professor Shlaim, who seems to be particularly hated in Israel these days as an apostate, was asked by Bishara how the reinterpretations of this history had been received in Israel, he said that at the time of the Oslo accords in 1993 Israeli public opinion was more open to rational debate about what had caused the Palestinian exodus, and, he added Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had turned many minds to questioning the accepted version of events. But around 2000, with the intafadas and succeeding events,  “the Israeli mind has closed again.” Shlaim said that all parties to this dispute have to reassess their responsibility for the present situation. Indeed this was emphasized during the course of the four-part series, especially by one of the Arab spokesmen who  had spoken sadly about Arab indecision in face of the challenge they faced, and lack of action over the years.
At least I was left by this discussion with something more than just the usual sense that this problem is beyond resolution: having the long view, each of the participants appeared to believe that calmer heads could prevail, if only information and the actual facts of what had happened were to be accepted by the participants of both sides.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, June 7, 2013

My Log 358: Recompense for Mau Mau victims recalls sad life of my friend Henry Munene, forced into suicide by Colonial Office barbarity

The Coat of arms of Kenya
The Coat of arms of Kenya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 An item of news widely reported yesterday, that the British government has agreed to pay compensation to Kenyans who suffered abuse, torture,  and other barbarities at the hands of the British forces opposing the Mau Mau uprising among the Kikuyus in the 1950s, comes as a welcome light in the generally dark aspect of global events.
For me, it brings a retrospective, too-late justification to my friend Henry Munene, who was hounded to his death by the British Colonial Office for absolutely no reason when he was my fellow-student at an adult education college in Scotland. I’ve never been able to think of Henry’s fate without saying to myself, bitterly, “the bastards, the absolute bastards.”
Although I have aways known that both sides commtted atrocities in the uprising in Kenya, my sympathies have always been rather with the men who conducted their campaign of rebellion from the bush, without benefit of any modern technology (not even the wheel, according to some accounts), than with the overlords who used Lancaster bombers to decimate their technologically-backward opponents.
In the 1960s I remember reading, and reviewing for The Montreal Star (many of whose readers took great exception to my review), a remarkable account of the rebellion from within, written by a Kikuyu who, being able to read and write, acted as secretary to Dedan Kimathi, the leader of the rebellion (to whose memory as a great warrior a statue was recently erected in Kenya).  One figure that stuck in my mind was that the British executed (many of these were public executions, I believe) more than 1,000 people. Many thousands died, many tens of thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps, and I discover, in looking for the title of the book I mentioned, that dozens of books have appeared analysing the cause, nature and suppression of the rebellion, and that in these books are revealed, in the words of survivors from both sides, examples of the most horrendous cruelties visited on the people in these concentration camps.
For me, the British behaviour in its suppression of the rebellion put paid to all suggestions of the benefits brought to subject peoples by the British colonial regime, or, to be more specific, to the often-repeated claims that British “civilized” savage people around the world. More likely were they to have murdered, tortured, killed and violated them than to have civilized them.
Well, back to Henry and his fate.  I was one of 16 adult education students who enrolled at a college called Newbattle Abbey in 1953 to take a non-diploma course of study designed to increase our knowledge in four subjects: history, literature, economics and philisophy.  I was 25 at the time, had gone directly from four years of high school into the work force, and it was my great good fortune to find myself enrolled under the leadership of the great Scottish poet and writer Edwin Muir, who, for almost a year, acted as my personal tutor in the writing of English.
The beautiful house which lies in the countryside a few miles outside Dalkeith in the Scottish Lowlands,  had been given to the nation for use in adult education by Lord Lothian,  a former British ambassador in the United States, but it had never attained much success, as proof of which in the year of my attendance we 16 students had four teachers.
Still, the student body was worth knowing: two Kenyan Africans, one a Luo, one a Kikuyu; a Norwegian girl, daughter of the  owner of the country’s biggest newspaper; two middle-aged working class Scotsmen, one a Communist, one an anarchist; a similarly fiery working-class scottish socialist, direct from school, without benefit of higher education;  a brace of Englishmen of what might be called lower-middle-class origin; two Yugoslav English teachers, sent from their country to improve their skills; one French trades unionist from Lyon. And me (with my schoolteacher wife along, permitted to live in the college as she was teaching in a nearby mining village.) The year I spent with these people was one of the most rewarding of my entire life.
To make up the lack of numbers, the College had a contract with the National Coal Board to send in every week a group of Scottish miners for what was described as “refresher” courses. These people left every Friday, and every Thursday night throughout the school year they presented a farewell concert at which they were never shy to get up and sing sentimental ballads like “My Ain Wee Hoose”, and recite endless verses of the great Robbie Burns.
On our side we never had much to offer in the way of entertainment, but we were able to take pride in the folk tales told every Thursday night by Henry. He kept all of us, miners included, in gales of laughter with his stories about hyenas, of which he had an endless supply.
Henry was one of the most amiable, charming people I have ever met in my life, full of laughter, jokes, and eagerness to learn everything the teachers could tell him, and I know he was loved by everyone of his fellow students.
I think it was in February that Jomo Kenyatta went on trial as the supposed leader of Mau Mau, and evidence given at the trial  said that a Henry Munene, a student leaving for Britain, was taken into a room and administered the Mau Mau oath before he was allowed to leave the airport. As soon as this was reported in Britain the Colonial Office arrived at Newbattle Abbey with a demand that Henry disavow this supposed oath.
Henry, though ebullient and spiritual by nature, was no softie, and he refused to collaborate with the Colonial Office, who were providing him with all the funds he needed to continue his education. We were getting towards the end of the school year, and after I left I had a letter from James D. Young, the fiery young socialist working class boy mentioned above (who, I discovered  many years later became the author of no fewer than 14 published books about the working class and its struggles in Scotland), telling me that he had taken Henry home to his home in Grangemouth, halfway between Edinburgh and Glosgow, “and they will need a ruddy army to get him out of here.”  He told me Hnry was not in great spirits, that he was wilting under the strain of the Colonial Office’s attack.
From London I wrote to Fenner Brockway, the renowned socialist Member of Parliament, asking if he could look into Henry’s case, and he replied that he would do so, and I later heard from a woman who had been alerted by Fenner, who had made contact with James and Henry.
Although I knew that Henry had been cut off all support by the Colonial Office, I thereafter lost touch with him and his fate, as well as with other students from Newbattle of my time.  On a visit to Kenya many years later I looked up the other Kenyan student, Timothy Ramtu, a different type from Henry,  a strong Christian with very conventional views, who had become after his return to Kenya a senior civi servant and had done a veritable circuit of many government departments, always in senior positions.  He was heading an Aga Khan company when I met him, and when I asked about Henry, he said that, like e, he had heard he had a breakdown of some kind, but he had lost touch with him after his return, and had no idea what happened to him.
More years later I ran across on the Internet an account of James Young’s activity as a writer and tracked him down through his publisher. He was, apparently, in terminal illness, but I did have the pleasure of talking to him by phone, and discovered his thick Scottish accent was undiminished, as were his fiery socialist beliefs. He told me, when I inquired, that Henry had had a mental breakdown and had eventually committed suicide.
Another great triumph for Colonialism, and for British standards of fair play.
The bastards, the absolute bastards.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, June 3, 2013

My Log 357: I catch up on Hobsbawm’s earlier volumes: The Age of Revolution fills me in on much that I didn’t know

Cover of "The Age of Revolution: 1789-184...
Cover of The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848

One of the books that has had the greatest influence on me was the last of Eric Hobsbawm’s four epic histories of the modern world, the one that deals with what he called the short twentieth-century,  to which he gave the title The Age of Extremes 1914-1991. As he took me through the decades of my life since 1928 I had the feeling he was writing about me, and what has happened to me during the seven decades that I lived through in that century.
I never had a chance since then to read his three earlier works until this week, when I came upon the first of them, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848  in the library of my friend in Dubrovnik. I kind of doubted my capacity to get through it, to tell the truth, but I soon discovered it is composed of  16 concise chapters, each of about 20 pages, which, if attacked one by one, presented a less formidable objective. To my surprise, I finished the book in a week, and although I was not totally blown away by it as by the earlier book, I did learn a great deal, once again had cause to sit at the feet of this master synthesizer, who, in this book took the two revolutions, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution that happened almost simultaneously, and explained therewith the bases of our modern world.
Although I have a kind of nagging resentment against intellectuals, some of them exhibit such staggering knowledge over huge areas of history as to leave me bereft of criticism, and Hobswawm is certainly one of those. (Another, as readers may remember me remarking before, was the McGill university anthropologist and archaeologist, Bruce Trigger,  whose untimely death in 2006, at the age of 69, robbed me of a sure guide through perceptions about native Canadians, as about Canadian politics in general).
Hobsbawm reveals in this one volume an amazing range of knowledge of European thought, science and art, not to mention his mastery of the facts and events that have marked Europe’s recent history. And unlike many intellectuals, he is not overcome by caution in making his judgments about what has happened. Although I read Carlyle on the French revolution, and a few other books, I had not realized, myself, the dramatic effect this event had on the structures of government throughout Europe, which are still being felt today. Also, I don’t think I had ever really understood that the basis for the British Empire lay so entirely on Britain’s industrial transformation, that its dominance of the seas was necessary to sell the goods, particularly the cotton goods in whose manufacture it was ahead of all other countries in the world. “Never in the entire history of the world,” writes Hobabawm, “has a single power exercised a world hegemony like that of the British in the middle of the nineteeth century, for even the greatest empires or hegemonies of the past had been merely regional --- the Chinese, the Mohammedan, the Roman. Never since then  has any single power succeeded in re-establishing a comparable hegemony, nor indeed is any one likely to in the foreseeable future; for no power has since been able to claim the exclusive status of ‘workshop of the world.’ ”
One may surely enter an interrogatory here, given the huge dominance of the United States over the world as it has developed since the fall of the Soviet Union (Hobsbawm was writing in 1961). But then again, the title of workshop of the world has so rapidly become attached to China in the last 20 years, that perhaps the case is not yet proven, either way.
Of course, Hobsbawm is not a great admirer of the results of the industrial revolution that lay at the heart of the British achievement. “No doubt these triumphs (of production) had their dark side, though these were not so readily to be summarised in statistical tables,” he writes in his final chapter. “How was one to find quantitative expression for the fact, which few would today deny, that the Industrial Revolution created the ugliest world in which man has ever lived, as the grim and stinking, fog-bound back streets of Manchester already testified?  Or, by uprooting men and women in unprecedented numbers and depriving them of the certainties of the ages, probably the unhappiest world?”
Although this was undoubtedly true, and there was poverty “of the most shocking kind” that many held was even increasing and deepening, yet, by the criteria which measured the triumphs of industry and science, “could even the gloomiest of rational observers maintain that in material terms it was worse than at any time in the past, or even than in unindustrialized countries in the present?” (He was referring to anyone who in the middle of the nineteenth century, was trying to make a balance account of achievements and failures.)
“It was a sufficiently bitter accusation,” he writes, “that the material prosperity of the labouring poor was often no better than in the dark past and sometimes worse than in periods within living memory, but the champions of progress had tried to fend off these facts with the argument that 'this was due not to the operations of the new bourgeois society,' so much as to the obstacles that the old feudalism, monarchy and aristocracy were still placing in the way of 'perfect free enterprise.' ”
For this brings us to the point that the Industrial Revolution was a triumph for capitalism, a demonstration of the by now well-known fact that capitalism is the most efficient system of governance in the production of goods, and that it demonstrated that the profit motive has always been willing to ruthlessly pursue its own maximization, no matter the effects on the lives on those whom it had virtually enslaved by its wage-system.
Among other things this remarkable book chronicles not only the rise of mechanized production, but also describes its attendant change in the modes of living from rural to urban, the rise of giant cities, which became the centres of education, science and culture. (His chapter on the arts, which did not, suprisingly, particularly grip me, nevertheless revealed some fascinating information, such as that “socially displaced young men and professional artists were the shock troops” of the Romantic rebellion against the bourgeois world: “Byron became famous overnight at 24, an age at which Shelley was famous and Keats was almost in his grave.” Hugo’s poetic career began when he was 20, Musset’s at 23, Schubert wrote Erlkoenig at the age of 18 and was dead at 31, Delacroix painted the Massacre of Chios at 25, Petofi published his Poems at 21. “An unmade reputation or an unproduced masterpiece by 30 is a rarity among the romantics,” writes Hobsbawm.)
Yet Hobsbawm’s book does emphasize the achievements stimulated by the industrialists and monied classes, the immense changes they brought about. By 1848 “the population of the world was greater than ever before, its communications unbelievably speedier…Cities of vast size multiplied faster than ever before. Industrial production reached astronomic figures: in the 1840s something like 640 million tons of coal were hacked from the interior of the earth.” These achievements were exceeded only by the even more extraordinary figures for international commerce, which had multiplied fourfold since 1780 to reach something like 800 millions of pounds sterling worth…
“Science had never been more triumphant; knowledge had never been more widespread. Over four thousand newspapers informed the citizens of the world and the number of books published annually in Britain, France, Germany and the USA alone ran well into five figures…”
And so it goes, this catalogue of the hard-won triumphs of the industrialists and their underpaid wage slaves; set against the horrors of the living conditions into which people removed from their traditional lands were cast when they reached the cities.
And yet, in spite of its advances, the world of the 1840s was, he writes, “out of balance.”  The future decline of Britain was already visible, and it was already evident it woud be overtaken eventually by the much larger economies of USA and Russia, and that even within Europe it would soon be challenged by Germany.
But was already clear, he writes, that sooner or later serfdom and slavery would have to go, that Britain could not for ever remain the only industrialized country, that landed aristocracies and absolute monarchies must retreat against the developed and developing bourgeoisie, and that the great legacy of the French revolution, the injection of political consciousness and political activity among the masses of people,  must sooner or later mean that the masses would eventually play a formal part in politics.
For me, perhaps the most interesting part of this book is that it traces the development of the idea of socialism and communism, from their beginnings in the 1820s, through to the Communist manifesto of 1848, in which Marx and Engels suggested socialism (or some form of it) was not just rational, but as Marx posited, inevitable, an argument that, as Hobsbawm notes, defences are still being erected against today.
The intervening two volumes of this epic intellectual enterprise are The Age of Capital 1848-1875, and The Age of Empire 1875-1914.  I am going to have to read these when I can find copies of them, after I return home at the end of July.

Enhanced by Zemanta