Saturday, 29 December 2012

'Lord Sebastian Coe'

The BBC World Service refers to 'Lord Sebastian Coe' - it makes you despair, which is the only unforgivable sin.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Imperial Hotel, Jerusalem



"Yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision, but today well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.."

The motto that hangs from the wall of the Imperial Hotel


The minibus journey from Ramallah to Jerusalem was not quite as easy as the outward journey and one Arab family were required to leave the bus by the Israeli soldiers. The bus deposited me at the minibus station near the Damascus Gate. I paid for another Jerusalem hotel (my back was giving me gyp and I had luggage to carry) and then found my favourite hotel in the world, The Imperial, had free rooms. 'Stay here for free' said the gracious and legendary manager, Mr. Dajani, so here am I in what seems like being back in a college room. Of course I shall pay him. 

'Wow!' said my Jewish Zionist friend, who has lived here for decades. 'Imagine a Jewish hotel-keeper doing that. It would never happen.'

The Kaiser stayed here in 1898. EXACTLY my kind of shabby genteel place. I feel it is my spiritual home. 

While the hotel was being built, the pool in which Bathsheba was seen bathing by King David was discovered on the site. The view from the front balcony is endlessly fascinating - from the roof there is a wonderful view of the Dome of the Rock, the old city and the Mount of Olives.

This is the real old Jerusalem, before the coming of the Jews, after 1918. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was the place for elegant Christian wedding receptions but now it needs doing up, though I shall no longer like it when it is renovated. Mr. Dajani's father, a Palestinian Muslim refugee, leased the hotel from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in 1950 but the hotel is now the subject of a lawsuit with Jewish investors. This say local Christians part of a highly organised attempt by Jews to seek to buy up the Christian Quarter. Mr.  Dajani says it is organised by a rich, politically well-connected Jew, who made his money in the U.S.A. from gambling and less respectable forms of entertainment. Elderly Arabs are offered vast sums in return for signing over their properties and are allowed to retain a life interest in the properties. Mr. Dajani says he turned down an offer of U.S. $20 million for his rights. Now the case drags on. 


You go inside the milky tea-coloured stone courtyard, ring the bell which says 'Sonnez jour 6.00-24.00' and walk up the stairs where the Kaiser trod and General Allenby, when he took Jerusalem and started all the trouble which will probably never end. The walls of my little room are stone, the ceiling sixteen feet high, the desk and wardrobe are Formica, the loo cannot cope with loo paper and a bin is provided (I suppose it was the same for the Kaiser), the bed is comfortable, the air conditioning heats the room quickly. My room feels like a monastic cell, appropriately enough considering that this is Jerusalem. Many things do not work at first but do with the help of the man from the reception.  The public rooms are a higgledy-piggledy jumble of antiques, paintings, framed maps and signed photographs. This feels like home.

It is one of my three favourite hotels in the world, the other two being the Baron in Aleppo and the Continental in Tangier.  A fourth, but it was not really shabby and has now been renovated, would be the Pera Palace, Constantinople.

Mr. Dajani, unlike most of the people I talk to, does not think there will never be peace. His gentle eyes are sharply intelligent and he sees that the Jews of the present day have lost the self-confidence and brutality that they he remembers in the boy soldiers of the 1967 Six Day War. The war in Lebanon in 2006 took 33 days not six and ended inconclusively, he points out. He wonders how many Jewish families will decide they would prefer to live somewhere else as the conflict goes on. 

He is frightened of the rebels in Syria and about whether Assad will attack Israel in a final throw of the dice.



Was that a gunshot? It sounded like it. No cars nearby to backfire.

I opened my window and peered into the dark passageway below. All I could see was a couple of gendarmes.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Boxing Day in Jerusalem


My wonderful guide, Joseph Graf, finally makes sense for me of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Mr. Graf is a retired Israeli Lieutenant-Colonel who puts absolute passion into his work. His parents escaped from the the USSR, where his father would have been sent to the mines and his mother far away to a factory, thanks to friendly Jewish NKVD officers. The NKVD men gave them two sets of false papers and detailed instructions on how to slip onto the train for Romania, where, several years later, Mr. Graf was born.

Then, thanking him and saying good-bye, I wander, which is the only way to see things. 

The Egyptian monastery in Jerusalem is exactly the kind of obscure thing I love. The aged caretaker shows me a wonderful hand-written illuminated manuscript - the illustrations are mainly of a jovial looking boyish ochre-coloured St Michael and I did not ask what the book was.

I drop into the shop where I met Maro yesterday and Julienne is there and tells me I am expected at Maro's house this evening. 

The Armenian Quarter is for me the most beautiful of the four quarters into which Jerusalem is divided. It is good to be among Christians and good to be far away from polite, sotto voce Anglican Christianity. The streets and squares have the eerie poetic look of a surrealist painting.

Is the reason American Protestants (unlike liberal Episcopalians) side with the Jews in Israel because the Arab Christianity is so very far from Protestantism? Is it subliminal anti-Catholicism, even though most Arab Christians are Orthodox?

Maro and her husband Michael, an American-Armenian who returned here after decades abroad, live in a wonderful house with a very large garden hidden in the Armenian Quarter and tell me sad stories of how the Armenians were dispossessed of their properties by the Jews in 1948. 

Dinner around the corner with Julienne, in the Armenian Tavern. I remembered Armenian cuisine with affection from Yerevan but the menu seemed unexciting and as a favour to me they made the Friday special, Termed Sinyeh, a stew made with meatballs and potato slices cooked in a tahini (sesame) sauce, but though I like most new dishes I try this was too sour for me. Nevertheless the Armenian Tavern was lively. The nearby Bulghourji, which Maro recommended, I know is good from three years ago but was forbiddingly empty.

A profound conversation with Julienne about things that matter. Everyone here talks about religion almost at once which is a reason to love this city.

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and Christmas Day in Jerusalem








Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and the streets are choked with boy scout and girl guide processions in the afternoon. Pretty girls where traditional costumes and it is a carnival. The Church of the Nativity is unreachable through the crowds I decided. Later the church is closed and Manger Square at 6 p.m. has an electric buzz. I feel ashamed that I do not make it  to stand at midnight in the Square  and watch the Mass on television screens. I do not make it to the church at all which is the reason I am here.






Once, recently, Bethlehem had a Christian majority  Now I am told Christians make up only 27% of the town's population. There are many reasons why Christians leave, including the political situation, the security wall which prevents Bethlehemites going to Jerusalem without permission reduces trade. There are also problems with Muslims, including, I was told, some cases of Muslim men harassing and raping Christian girls. Every Christian and Muslim I speak to bewails the economic problems and the wall but nevertheless I see signs of prosperity and plenty of new buildings, including the new four star hotel, The Shepherd Plaza, in which I am staying. A very hospitable and pleasant hotel that I enjoy and recommend. Palestinian Arabs are the most hospitable people in the world.




I came from Bethlehem to Jerusalem early on Christmas morning. I suddenly decided to 
escape from the somewhat yeastless people I was with  and my intuition was right. Intuition always is. I was shriven in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre close to Golgotha by a Polish Franciscan priest-friar. A half remembered line from Ronald Firbank novel swims into my mind:
'I know of no joy,' she airily began, 'greater than a cool white dress after the sweetness of confession.' 
An Armenian Christian lady gave me coffee and told me about life for Arabs in Jerusalem.

The internet let me down  by promising me a Latin Mass at the Franciscan church. Experience has taught me that when Mass in Latin is advertised it always turns out not to be in Latin but this was in Italian and in Latin and was exceptionally lovely. We sang:
Adeste fideles læti triumphantes, 
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Lunch involved turkey but not Christmas trimmings or pudding at the American Colony Hotel.  The American Colony predates the coming of the Jews to Jerusalem and has a relaxed, aristocratic air: a mixture of the London Ritz and the Levant. The food is good but not exceptional and not as good as the ambiance. There a Jewess, originally from Ilford, felt drawn to start a conversation with me and we had a wonderful conversation. She is a so-called Messianic Jew, who accepts Jesus as the Messiah and God. I ended up sitting with her women friends.

My Christmas dinner was in a kosher Mexican restaurant with a clever Jewish journalist friend with whom I was at college. We discussed Middle Eastern politics and college and pretty girls we knew in common like the very gorgeous Vanessa Feltz. He mentioned that Stephen Fry was "so funny at Cambridge, never funny afterwards". Glad I am not the only one who thinks this. We agreed Hugh Laurie is better, though not in the dire Jeeves and Wooster.

I think this has been the best Christmas of my life though not a carouse though fairly gluttonous. I chastely drank two glasses of wine with lunch and two with my dinner and went to be stone cold sober.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Merry Christmas, one and all!








































He was created of a mother whom He created. He was carried by hands that He formed. He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, He the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute. 

St. Augustine


Roses are reddish.

Violets are bluish.

If it wasn't for Christmas,

We'd all be Jewish.

Christmas card I once bought

Sunday, 23 December 2012

A very happy day in the West Bank



I love Israel and love Jews but it is an enormous joy today to reach the West Bank, Arabs, a good, welcoming hotel in Bethlehem, the Shepherd, and to hear the sound of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. There is a feeling of warm, chaotic humanity. Blessed are poor countries, certainly from my point of view as a visitor staying in a very comfortable hotel, though, actually, I did not choose this hotel and I usually prefer to put up in dives.


The Greek Orthodox monastery St. Elias on Mount Tabor, supposed site of the Transfiguration. 


I had an enchanting day which began on Mount Tabor where the Transfiguration happened, according to St Matthew. We stood outside the Greek Orthodox monastery, feeling like the souls of the dead waiting to be judged, knocked several times but received no answer. The nuns were breakfasting. Finally an elderly nun shouted to us in good Romanian, 
'Ask the Lord to give you patience' 
and after another five minutes the doors opened and we entered. Like most churches in the Holy Land it was not interesting from an architectural or historical view, but to think this is to miss the point. Location, location, location is the thing. And as well as location the monastery was pretty and it and its garden possessed an incomparable peace which comes from prayer and goodness.

A long journey into he West Bank and the Judean desert, the smallest desert in the world, then a surprise, this wonderful Orthodox monastery of Deir Hajla, near Jericho, founded in the fourth century. This monastery was ravishingly pretty indeed. It stands near the site of St. Gerasimus's cell and on the site where the Holy Family is said to have sheltered when fleeing to Egypt. Do I believe they fled to Egypt or that Herod massacred the innocents?


Orthodox monastery of Deir Hajla, near Jericho, in Judean desert.
Everyone knows the story of how St. Gerasimus tamed a lion by removing a thorn from its paw and taught it obedience. He is the patron saint of animals and one of those rather few saints who appeal to unbelievers (most saints do not and many were pretty difficult people - think of grumpy, choleric St. Jerome who is unconvincingly also said to have tamed lions).



Qumran.
Then the ruins of Qumran, the Essene centre and source of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have all read about the Dead Sea Scrolls but I never imagined I would ever one day visit Qumran. The ruins are not interesting in themselves but the view beside the Dead Sea, overhung by mountains is dramatic. More interesting though is the Dead Sea, where I floated. I stayed in, as advised, only ten minutes but I was wonderfully relaxed.

A place that I had not visited before because it was not interesting enough is Jericho which claims, along with Damascus Aleppo and Erbil (Irbil, Arbil) in Iraq, to be the oldest city in the world. All four cities were millennia old when Rome was forest.

Then the mountain in the desert where Jesus resisted the temptations of Satan, the generic psychopath, the Father of Lies. I should do the same. Underneath a man sold overpriced but delicious pomegranate juice and another had tethered a camel, brought from some other desert, to make a little money.


Bethlehem used to be a majority Christian town thirty years ago and now alas Christians are only 27%. The Christmas decorations are up for commercial more than any other reason. Christmas is the town's principal industry.

Yesterday I saw Nazareth and the Catholic church built on the place that St. Helen, the former barmaid, decided in the early 4th century was the scene of the Annunciation. No doubt local Judeo-Christians had preserved a tradition going back to the first half of the First Century on the matter and an ancient inscription has been found saying, 'Blessed is the family'. The church was built in the totalitarian architectural style of the mid-1960s yet is more impressive than one expects from that disastrous decade. 


An Orthodox church built in 1750 on the site of the spring where a legend, current among the Orthodox, says that the Annunciation happened. The priest told me through an interpreter that 'Israelis were very good for Christians'. 

Then another church that might be built on the site of St Joseph's workshop but probably, I assume, isn't. In the crypt, however, is a ritual bath carbon dated to the first century, the oldest in the Holy Land. This church was built in 1914. The Holy Land is not a good place for old churches. Too many churches were destroyed too many times. 

The long history of religious war continues to this day. Christians made up 20% of the population of the Middle East in 1900 but now only 2%. The million Christians who lived under Saddam in Iraq, for example, have fallen to at most 300,000 today. Christians are now leaving Egypt and Syria as well as the West Bank. Christians suffer in the Middle East because they are seen as sympathetic to the West, which Muslims rightly see is another word for Christendom, when in the West the links between the public culture and Christianity are being deliberately severed. 

I spent yesterday afternoon in Tiberias, a pretty, spotlessly clean and tidy, unexciting lakeside resort. The Sea of Galilee is the thing, not the town. it was the sabbath and the place was empty which reminded me of Sunday afternoons in the seaside resort of my boyhood, also a rather Jewish place. Boring, I reminded myself, is another word for peaceful. 


Yesterday I felt a sense of listlessness as I always did on Sunday afternoons in the 1970s but today was a wonderfully happy day and tomorrow I stand outside the Church of the Nativity, for midnight Christmas Mass. This church really is old, founded by St. Helen in the early fourth century, but, standing on the supposed site of the Virgin Birth its antiquity and its beauty (it has none) are again not the point.

Friday, 21 December 2012

“You can take possession of the whole world, but NOT of my wife!"

I am indebted to George Teodorescu for this incident from the tortured history of German-Italian relations during the Second World War.


“Il Duce protests against the conduct of German soldiers in Italy, especially the non-commissioned officers, who are presumptuous, quarrelsome, and drunken. Last night in Foggia two of them forced their way into the house of a man who was about to go to bed and said to him, “We have taken possession of France, Belgium, Poland and Holland. Tonight we are going to take possession of your wife.” To which the man replied “You can take possession of the whole world, but NOT of my wife! I haven’t any. I’m a bachelor.” In their disappointment, the broke all the furniture before they withdrew.”

Diary of Count Galeazzo Ciano (Italian foreign minister), entry of January 12, 1942

Going to the Holy Land - in the airport

The for me MOST unusual luxury of being in an airport with 90 minutes to spare, writing this with a cappuccino, the international currency, to hand.

A wonderfully pretty, blonde Israeli security guard interrogated me very thoroughly. I am going to Jordan alone and don't know where I shall be staying? I told her male colleague I live in Romania because I love the place at first sight. 'He hates it here' she said, which gave me pleasure. I said all the shopping centres have spoilt it. 

Am sorry to be leaving Bucharest as it snows this morning and the friend who drives me talks with relish of the pig he has killed and the Christmas he anticipates with tuica (plum brandy) and stuffed vine leaves. Romania is the best place to spend Christmas. Well, except perhaps Bethlehem - we shall see.

This time I have my laptop with me - having backed it up last night. I usually leave it at home for fear of losing it. Travel with a laptop is not really travel as we all live nowadays in our computers. We carry our homes in our laptops like snails carry theirs in their shells, and this may be a good thing because do we really want to leave home? 



Wednesday, 19 December 2012

How the robin came to be on Christmas cards


How the robin came to be on Christmas cards. It sounds like the title of one of Kipling's Just So stories. In the beginning, oh best beloved...

I never asked myself why robins and Christmas were inextricably linked but just knew they were, until, when designing my company's e-Christmas card this Christmas, I found (stole, I suppose) a great picture of a robin sitting atop an apple on snowy ground and one of my Romanian colleagues asked, "What has that bird to do with Christmas?"  

That was when I asked myself the same question and this is the answer I found (isn't the internet a wonderful thing?)

Postage stamps were first invented in England in 1841 and in 1843 an Englishman invented Christmas cards. Since not long after that, Christmas cards in England have usually featured the robin redbreast, a bird whose bright red breast perhaps subconsciously suggests the red cloak of Father Christmas. There is an old legend that when Jesus was suffering on the cross the robin, whose breast was in those days brown in colour, flew to Jesus’ side and sang into his ear in order to comfort Him. As a result, the blood from Jesus’s wounds stained the robin's breast and thereafter all robins carry the mark of Christ's blood. However, the robin’s association with Christmas is more prosaic, purely secular and nothing to do with the resurrection or, come to that, Father Christmas. Postmen wore red uniforms in Victorian England and were therefore nicknamed "Robin"; the robin on the Christmas card is a visual pun referring to the postman delivering the card.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Psychopaths are motivated by envy

The psychopath, like everyone, is attracted to the qualities he has repressed in himself. Therefore, according to Melanie Klein, he is drawn to good people, whom he envies and wishes to embrace but also to harm, thus relieving his painful feelings of envy. In the same way, good people are sometimes attracted by evil ones, because evil people do the things good people do not dare even want to do. This is why stories about psychopaths sell more than stories about saints.

Envy is one of the psychopath's principal emotions. If the psychopath cannot possess good qualities himself he can devalue people he recognises as good, by insults or harming them, in some cases even by murder. Psychopaths envy everything, for evil is a vacuum, negation. Evil is a very real thing (read crime stories in the press or read some history) and, paradoxically, also nothing, a kind of black hole. 

Envy and pride, not greed or cruelty, are at the heart of evil.  Particularly, envy of another's spiritual good, which the Church has always considered one of the greatest of all sins, a sin against the Holy Spirit. The myth of the fall of Lucifer is accurate, understood in psychological terms.


'His [Othello's] life had a daily beauty in it which made mine ugly.' 

was the only explanation Iago gave for his crimes at the end of Othello. Some people think this a cop out on the part of Shakespeare. In fact, it is good psychology and good theology.


This is one reason why psychotherapy for psychopaths is dangerous (the psychotherapist can be in emotional and even physical danger). Another is the fact that psychotherapy may make the psychopath worse, not better, in the sense of being better able to understand himself and better able to achieve his ends. In any case, as Freud said, the patient needs a conscience for therapy to work. It only works if the subject wants to be a better person. ('How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.')



The evil eye, which has always been feared in traditional societies, is supposed to be motivated by envy and inflict bad luck. It is interesting that evil people, or at any rate psychopaths, do stare in a remarkably strange way.
Image result for ira einhorn 2014
Ira Einhorn, environmentalist, psychopath and murderer




Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors murderers, who tortured and killed children
For more about the evil eye, click here.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Karl Marx writes about the Satanic urge to destroy the world

Karl Marx's apparent admiration for Satan in his juvenile poems (this link repays reading) seems revealing. Like Milton, he was of the devil's party without knowing it. Or rather perhaps, unlike Milton, he did know it very well.

Perhaps Marx was a psychopath. Someone on the net has argued the case interestingly here. Reading it one sees parallels with the young Hitler, another bohemian who also lacked the German work ethic, although Hitler was much more charming, which is another psychopathic trait. 

Lines from Marx's poems, which he puts into the mouths of demons, include:



Worlds I would destroy forever,
Since I can create no world;
Since my call they notice never …




Then I will be able to walk triumphantly,
Like a god, through the ruins of their kingdom.
Every word of mine is fire and action.My breast is equal to that of the Creator.



Ourselves being clockwork, blindly mechanical,
Made to be the foul-calendars of Time and Space,
Having no purpose save to happen, to be ruined,
So that there shall be something to ruin …
If there is a something which devours,
I'll leap within it, though I bring the world to ruins-
The world which bulks between me and the Abyss
I will smash to pieces with my enduring curses.I'll throw my arms around its harsh reality:
Embracing me, the world will dumbly pass away,
And then sink down to utter nothingness,
Perished, with no existence — that would be really living!


Edward Norman on modern religion

Time to repost some wonderfully good quotations from the great Edward Norman, my favourite living historian and religious commentator. I wish I had met him for more than a quarter of an hour.



"The age is described by welfare: it occupies the space for sacral values once filled by the churches. Indeed the neo-Puritanism of the times promotes welfare considerations as exclusively important."

"Extraordinarily enough, the leaders of the Church manage to identify the present welfare idealism - which is based in Humanist materialism - as fundamental Christianity, an application of the love of neighbour enjoined by Christ. But preoccupation with material welfare, whatever higher considerations may become attached to it, cultivates worldliness, and is an enemy of authentic faith."


"The Churches themselves, in fact, have rushed to acclaim the new humanism - the `caring society - as the very essence of Christianity. But it is actually quite pagan, concentrating as it does on the merely worldly needs of people in a way which is plainly contrary to the renunciations indicated in the teachings of Christ. This is not an academic matter. For when Christians identify the present secular enthusiasm for humanity as basic Christianity - the love of neighbour - they are in reality acclaiming and legitimising their own replacement."


"Through contact with liberal and Christian values the other world religions were sanitised and made acceptable to Western sensibilities: widows were no longer incinerated alive on their husbands funeral pyres, and the way was opened for that late-20th-century phenomenon, the Western idealising of Oriental religiosity, beads and mantras in Californian condominiums."

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Str. Lipscani, my manor

Str. Lipscani, my manor, in 1942. It was a much more disreputable place, full of shabby shops which sold useful articles cheaply, when I moved in in 2000. The new Old Town was invented suddenly around 2008 just in time for the crisis but, I grudgingly concede, makes people happier than the slum I loved. They had much better music in Bucharest in 1942 than now, though the 1942 hits are still popular, one of the many ways in which this wonderful city is more civilised than other European capitals.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Books read and films seen this year of grace 2012




The High Window*, Raymond Chandler
The Long Goodbye*, Raymond Chandler

Muhammad, Karen Armstrong
Stalingrad, Anthony Beevor 
Defying Hitler, Sebastian Hafner
Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-45, Roger Moorehouse
This Business of Living: Diaries 1925-50*, Cesare Pavese
Relapse into Bondage, Alexandru Cretianu
Friends and Heroes*, Olivia Manning
Waugh in Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh - I reviewed it here

As You Like It*, William Shakespeare
History of the Roumanians*, R.W.Seton-Watson 
A History of Romania, Kurt Treptow

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, Victor Sebestyen

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi - Geoff Dyer
In Ethiopia with a Mule, Dervla Murphy I reviewed it here
Tippu Tip: The Story of His Career in Zanzibar and Central Africa, Heinrich Brode
First Footsteps in East Africa, Richard Burton
The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, Ryszard Kapuscinski - I reviewed it here
Here is New York, E. B. White
The Psychopath's Bible*, Christopher Hyatt
Remote People, Evelyn Waugh 

The Diary of TerrorEthiopia 1974-1991, Dawit Shifaw 
Solitude*, Anthony Storr
Pagans and Christians Robin Lane Fox - I reviewed it here
The Shadow of the Sword. Tom Holland - I reviewed it here.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon.
The Early Church*, Henry Chadwick



Bold means I loved it. An asterisk means I have read it before. 

What a masculine, middle-aged list. I am even reading military history, which is the last refuge of the middle-aged male. In fact I tried Beevor's Stalingrad on a recommendation from an aesthete friend but it bored and repelled me. Gibbon though is great.

I read Chandler for the prose style not for the plot, though he is a good storyteller. I thought when 14 that The Long Goodbye was too long and too much trying to be a proper novel. Now I absolutely loved it except the ending with the silly twist which I merely skimmed without attempting to understand it.

Karen Armstrong on Muhammad is not worth reading as she does not mention that the evidence for her subject's life is extremely late indeed (two centuries after the event).

Hafner's book, to my great surprise, an account of his uneventful life in Berlin in 1933, found among his papers and published ten years ago, is absolutely wonderful. It is beautifully written and deeply horrifying because of the sheer normality of his life as he describes it in Berlin in 1933 and the ease and rapidity with which Germans accepted Nazism and Nazi indoctrination. I hope it becomes a classic and is read in a hundred years' time as it deserves to be. People follow like sheep. I saw a somewhat faint parallel with another totalitarian ideology with a whiff of sulphur, political correctness, which has made cowards of us all in recent years. 

File:StellaKubler.jpg

The Moorehouse book is not particularly well written or strikingly insightful, but it efficiently covers the ground. The story of Stella Kübler, the beautiful blonde Jewess who was used by the Nazis as bait to uncover Jews hiding in Berlin, chilled my blood. She was told that, by her collaborating, her parents would be saved, but unsurprisingly they were sent to the gas chambers anyway. She herself lived to an old age before she committed suicide. One solitary Jew was permitted to survive in the Jewish cemetery burying Jews according to Jewish practice. He was still alive when the Russians came. 

This is what a friend of mine calls Hitler porn but my excuse is that I know very little about German domestic history during the Nazi period, the subject is important and I am interested in biographies of cities, writing as I am one a book on Bucharest. 

Olivia Manning's third volume in the Balkan trilogy, set in Greece, which I reread while spending the weekend in Athens and Hydra, inclines me to think that the reason I like the first two so much is because of my love of and interest in Romania not Manning's writing. She does not create characters. Her characters are clearly drawn from life in many cases and therefore do not come alive. It is the invented ones like Yaki who live. 

Seton-Watson is magisterial and should be read by all foreigners who speak English in Romania. I am ashamed that I had only skimmed it before. I had never opened Treptow, which the author gave me in 1999, before he went inside, and had assumed it would be a facile popularisation but, despite the numerous mistakes and misspellings, it was a more vivid, condensed account than Seton-Watson and taught me rather a lot. Dennis Deletant tells me it was written by a  group of Romanian historians not by Treptow and completed very hurriedly - hence the mistakes and typos - so that Adrian Nastase, when he was Foreign Minister,  had copies to give away when he visited the USA.


Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen is journalism rather than history, but very interesting.


I read Here is New York, by E. B. White, because Johann Hari tweeted that it was the best essay of all time. It is not but it is very well written and might inspire me to write about Bucharest if I am lucky. But reading Remote People by Evelyn Waugh immediately after Here is New York makes Waugh's prose seem even more dazzling than usual. White is a very good stylist whom Waugh effortlessly outdoes. Although perhaps I am biassed as I 'get' English writers so much better than American ones. Americans speak our language but do not think like we do. And they write in English but not in the setting of the English class system, which always makes reading them seem eerie.

The Psychopath's Bible is a reminder that psychopaths, though amoral or rather immoral, have values they believe in, which they cannot be argued out of - might is right, survival of the fittest, victims want to be victims, selfishness is good, the ideas of Ayn Rand. A reminder that morality, like art, is inspired by love not logic.

'Tom' Holland went to my college years after me and took a Double First in Classics and History and has many books to his credit. I try not to be jealous, but he cannot write.

I haven't decided whether I love Gibbon yet - reading a book on a kindle makes love more difficult, for some reason - but I am enjoying him, though his paganism and contempt for the early church disgust me. He is a very good historian indeed. Cardinal Newman said, "It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon."  


Four novels, which is much better than my usual score, although I am not sure the two Raymond Chandler thrillers really count.

Films seen

Six films is also much better than my normal score, which is none. None were any good, except In A Better World. Albert Nobbs was dull, pleasant but in the end a waste of time - please read George Moore's wonderful short story instead. George Moore is an unjustly neglected genius (like me).

The Blue Dahlia (1947)*
The Brasher Doubloon (1947)
Albert Nobbs (2011)
In a Better World (2011)
Thank you for Smoking (2005)
Goodbye, Lenin (2003)

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Cand esti mort, nu stii ca esti mort.

‎"Cand esti mort, nu stii ca esti mort. E greu doar pentru ceilalti... La fel si cand esti prost." (Oana Pelea)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Battle in Gaza, 634

Less than five years after the (Byzantine) Roman Empire had won back Palestine from the Iranianson 4 February 634, Muslim Arabs defeated the Byzantine army, commanded by the candidatus, Sergius, at the Battle of Dathin, a village near Gaza. Sergius himself was killed. The Muslim victory was celebrated by the local Jews. 

This is the moment when Islam enters history. 

The fascinating Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, a Christian polemic against the Jews and one of the very few historical sources, records voices from an otherwise eerily silent period of Middle Eastern history:

When the candidatus was killed by the Saracens, I was at Caesarea and I set off by boat to Sykamina. People were saying "the candidatus has been killed," and we Jews were overjoyed. And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come. I, having arrived at Sykamina, stopped by a certain old man well-versed in scriptures, and I said to him: "What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?" He replied, groaning deeply: "He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword. Truly they are works of anarchy being committed today and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist. Indeed, Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go, master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared." So I, Abraham, inquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men's blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible.
This seems to be the first of the very few near-contemporary references to Mohammed, leaving aside the four references to him in the Koran, though he is not named and it has been unconvincingly suggested that the reference is to some other prophet. In fact, we know very little about Mohammed. Almost everything that is thought to be known about him is myth.

Two years later, the Battle of Yarmouk marked the final defeat in Syria of the Roman Empire, which was in fact, by this time, Greek. The Middle East has remained mostly in Muslim hands ever since. 

The Christian Middle East still exists and still feels Greek, though Christians, who made up 20% of the population of the Middle East in 1900, now make up 2% and are now leaving in large numbers. The traditional Jewish Middle East existed up until 1948, when the Jews were expelled from many Arab countries. Little remains of it now.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Notes on reading Gibbon 2: Elagabalus’s subversion of conventional gender expectations and invention of the whoopee cushion



When I was a fifteen year old, bookish and friendless, The Augustan History was one of the books I intended to read (in the Penguin translation  because I am a victim of the dreadful Cambridge Latin Course which did not teach me to write Latin and therefore did not teach me to read it). But I never did. I am making up for it now by reading Gibbon instead, but I wonder how reliable he is or how reliable any ancient historian is. I read Michael Grant's book The Roman Emperors and was disappointed that he merely expresses disbelief in all the lurid stories of Suetonius and other historians about the Emperors, without any evidence to discount them except that they sound rum. I suppose ancient history is making bricks without much straw.

What are we to make about Gibbon's very disapproving account of the reign of Elagabalus, (better known to me at least as Heliogabalus)?



To confound the order of the season and climate, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the manners and dress of the female sex, preferring the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor's, or, as he more properly styled himself, the empress's husband. It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice. Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country.

Elagabalus was born in Emesa in Syria, a city much discussed in Robin Lane-Fox's book Pagans and Christians, which I read recently. Looking Emesa up in Wikipedia I see that it is the modern Homs, scene of so much bloodshed today and a place I visited some years ago.  Elagabalus brought a conical black stone, the image of  El-Gebal, the Emesan sun god, to Rome. This black stone reminds me of the black stone which was worshipped at Mecca before its conversion to Islam and which was placed by Mohammed in the wall  of the Kaaba, the ancient stone building towards which Muslims pray, in the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Perhaps both stones were meteorites, like the one mentioned in Acts 19:23-36 which was worshipped at Ephesus.

Elagabalus was a highly sexed, bisexual teenager, given absolute power over the whole civilised world, at a time when Christian morality, including sexual morality, was known to only a small minority. Like many Emperors before him, he did not behave like an English public school man. He is said to have offered vast sums to any doctor who could give him female genitalia, an operation that doctors nowadays regularly perform. Elagabalus also employed a prototype of whoopee cushions at dinner parties.

Gibbon's account of Eliogabalus's reign is dealt with on this podcast.



I came across this passage from Gibbon, which is worth quoting:


In every age and country, the wiser, or at least the stronger of the two sexes, has usurped the powers of the state, and confined the other other to the cares and pleasures of private life. In hereditary monarchies, however, and especially in those of modern Europe, the gallant spirit of chivalry, and the law of succession, have accustomed us to allow a singular exception; and a woman is often acknowledged the absolute sovereign of a great kingdom, in which she would be deemed incapable of exercising the smallest employment, civil or military. But as the Roman emperors were still considered as the generals and magistrates of the republic, their wives and mothers, although distinguished by the name of Augusta, were never associated to their personal honours; and a female reign would have appeared an inexplicable prodigy in the eyes of those primitive Romans, who married without love, or loved without delicacy and respect. The haughty Agrippina aspired, indeed, to share the honours of the empire, which she had conferred on her son; but her mad ambition, detested by every citizen who felt for the dignity of Rome, was disappointed by the artful firmness of Seneca and Burrhus. The good sense, or the indifference of succeeding princes, restrained them from offending the prejudices of their subjects; and it was reserved for the profligate Elagabalus, to disgrace the acts of the senate, with the name of his mother Soæmias, who was placed by the side of the consuls, and subscribed, as a regular member, the decrees of the legislative assembly.
The Roses of Heliogabalus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. 

The world turns on its axis and now being a cross-dresser who introduced Asian religion into Rome and appointed a woman senator sounds progressive. A review of a recent life of Eligabolus says:

Twentieth-century fictional literature, drama, and even some scholarly works celebrated what they deemed Elagabalus’s countercultural or anarchic image, homosexual inclinations, “oriental” spiritualism, or androgynous subversion of conventional gender expectations. 
The book suggests that the traditional picture of Elagabalus is unreliable and it certainly is propaganda. I'd like to know more but we seem to be reaching the frontier between history and erotic fiction. John Hay, in his The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus (1911), which does not sound like a very scholarly work, said of the Life of Elagabalus in The Augustan History:


In the latter portion of the life there is a wealth of biographical detail, which, in plain English, means an account in extenso of what has been already described too luridly in the foregoing sections. It is written in Latin, and has never been translated into English, to the writer’s knowledge, nor has he any intention of undertaking the work at this present or any other time, as he has no desire to land himself, with the printers and publishers, in the dock at the Old Bailey, in an unenviable, if not an invidious and notorious position.

By the way, the Spanish word heliogábalo means glutton. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

I finally visited the Cotroceni Palace

I finally visited the Cotroceni Palace after 14 years in Bucharest. I cannot imagine why I did not do so before or rather I do understand - I imagined it was merely a museum within the palace which was open to the public, but in fact the museum is most of the palace. 

Prince Serban Cantecuzino built the original palace-monastery and, sadly, King Carol I rebuilt in the late nineteenth century. Unlike in President Constantinescu's time, the section where the President has his offices is not open to the public and nor are the seventeenth century monastic quarters or the cellars which date from the same period.

It is a dull house, although the rooms decorated by Queen Marie are pleasant, unlike those furnished in dark and heavy Wilhelmine taste by King Carol I. I am a passionate monarchist and wish everywhere in the world was a monarchy, excepting ancient republics like San Marino and Venice, but I have little interest in monarchs or princes. It is the monarchy as institution and principle which commands my assent. I therefore am not terribly interested in knowing what King Carol I's and Queen Elizabeth's bed is like. Though my interest awoke. The bed was rather short and the guide, Anca, told us that this was because the royal couple slept sitting down, resting their heads on big cushions, rather than lying down.  This was considered to be healthier. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown indeed.



buduoarul reginei maria
Queen Marie's oratory is decorated with icons, but also with figures from Norse mythology.
Here in the council chamber in 1914 Carol I was unable to persuade his ministers  to honour their secret alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and go to war on their side. This decision was said to have broken the King's heart and caused his death later in that year. Here too, in 1916, Ferdinand and his ministers took the fateful decision to go to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, a decision which resulted in the defeat and occupation of Romania, a great loss of Romanian blood and treasure and, according to Norman Stone, allowed Germany to continue the war for another two years. 

After King Carol I and Queen Elizabeth, King Ferdinand and Queen Marie lived in the palace. Queen Marie wrote that she loved the odd combination of palace and monastery. King Carol II and the present King did not live there. After his enforced abdication, it became a 'palace' for children, meaning the 'Pioneers' (the Communist youth organisation) and then, in the 1970s, a palace for Nicolae Ceausescu.


The skins of the bears he shot adorn some of the floors. Apparently the hunts were carefully staged so that the president could kill the bears, something that journalists asserted was done for Mr. Adrian Nastase when he was Prime Minister between 2000 and 2004. One of the more tasteful rooms, very surprisingly, was designed by the Communists in the style of Louis XIV, because they expected that Queen Elizabeth II would repay the state visit by Nicolae Ceausescu. When we told Anca about how, during that visit, the Romanians stole innumerable objects from Windsor Castle (British diplomats warned Giscard, before Ceausescu went to stay at the Elysée  not to leave things lying around) Anca gave a cry of pain and said that this made her feel very bad about her countrymen. I started to tell her that this did not reflect on them and then I realised that it did and I felt for her. There is so much beautiful idealism in Romania, which is confronted with an often very dirty reality.

I felt an urge to leave before the tour ended but I stayed for the church, which is the best reason for visiting the palace. It was built twenty years ago as a replica of the monastery church built by Prince Serban Cantecuzino and demolished in 1984. It contains handsome pillars from the old church, made in a style which pointed towards the Brâncovenesc style of a few years later, and some (far too few) very lovely wall paintings that survived from the old church. I loved the use of space in the inner courtyards, especially the square  around the church. The trees could not have looked lovelier than on a cold bright November afternoon. I found the church, though new, very beautiful and of course very, very sad. 

biserica palatului