Sunday, 30 September 2012

Britishisms and the Britishisation of American English

The BBC tells us that while English English is adopting Americanisms there is a more discreet flow of words in the other direction. 

So odd what words we do not have in common. A word as common as fortnight is not known over there. An American once asked me what 'twee' meant and I said:


And 'Tea' she cried, in a tiny voice,
'Wake up! It's nearly FIVE!'
Oh chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive.

usually resent Americanisms used by Englishmen and have taught a score of Romanians to pronounce the first syllable of schedule as if it were shed. One young American battleaxe I am delighted to say got cross with me when I told her that and said shrilly


'Nobody speaks British English any more!' 
'Well, sixty million people in Britain do, I suppose.'

I told Romanians to use the word 'frightfully' instead of 'terribly' if they wished to irritate Americans, which they did indeed want to do because they are all snobs and think American English is vulgar. (Saul Bellow taught me that Americans are annoyed by 1930s British expressions used by foreigners.) I especially hate alumnus or, even worse, alum. What is wrong with saying 'Oxford men and women' or whatever? But I nevertheless admire and love the fecundity of American English: fuzzy maths; bimbo eruptions; babe hoover; user-friendly; spin doctors; couch potatoes. 

'What gradually emerged with Gordon was that he could not do the job'


Jack Straw in today's paper:
“What gradually emerged with Gordon, which was a shock to his cabinet colleagues and the deepest trauma to him, was that he could not do the job and he has since retreated, and we don't see him. There is, sadly, no connection between an obsessive desire for a post and the ability to do it."  
Actually very often or usually there is such a connection. As Dr Johnson said,


"Providence seldom sends any into the world with an inclination to attempt great things, who have not abilities, likewise, to perform them" 

but Mr Brown's case is one of the exceptions. Historians will wonder why he was so very powerful within the Labour Party for 18 years. The answer is partly to do with Tony Blair's fear of him.

The great majority of British Prime Ministers have been able to do the job passably - the grace of office descends on them - but 
Mr Major was just not up to it. Nor were Sir Anthony Eden and, least of all, Mr. Brown  - the two Prime Ministers of modern times who were heirs apparent for years. Though, in retrospect, Mr Major's period seems a Golden Age, an Arthurian myth, compared with the disaster that followed. He was not a good political leader but his Government did a good job in home affairs though a bad one regarding the Maastricht Treaty, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Bosnia. (Balfour and Chamberlain, who were also the heirs apparent, were also disasters, though Chamberlain at least might have been a good  Prime Minister in other circumstances.)

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Antisemitic mural in Brick Lane

Seventy-five years after the Battle of Cable Street, an anti Semitic mural is unveiled in a street in the East End of London - no doubt with the approval of the Islamist-Labour controlled Borough of Tower Hamlets.  

In 1874, when England was still civilised, Tower Hamlets elected a Tory MP in Disraeli's landslide victory. What would Disraeli think of the borough today? He was always friendly to Islam and wrote in his diary as a young man, staying with Ali Pasha in Albania, of the joy 'of being made much of by a man who is daily decapitating half the country.' I doubt though that modern semi-Muslim Tower Hamlets would accord with his romantic dream of England.






Looking at the masonic symbol and the caricatures of Jewish capitalists in the mural (I suppose Hilda Ogden would have called it a muriel), you see how the extreme right and left are legs of the same pair of trousers - hating the bourgeoisie, detecting Jewish conspiracies... In some parts of Eastern Europe, whence Jewish immigrants came to East London, the Jews and the business class did seem to many almost synonymous. Marx excoriated Jews. Goebbels claimed the Nazis' Jewish policy proved they were socialist. Progressive socialists and anti-Semites were not clearly distinguished a hundred years ago and they are becoming slightly less distinguishable these days, too. Then add in the increasing dislike of Jews felt by many Muslims.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Herbert Lom has died

pink-panther-herbert-lom.jpg


Herbert Lom has died. This saddens me. 

Here he is about to die in The Ladykillers in 1955 (the best comedy film ever - don't even mention the remake) and here he gets his. I was interested to learn he was a Czech and went to Cambridge. I wonder at which college.

Gategate

Finally, after waiting most of my life, a political scandal involving a gate. 

The gate is the one at Downing St, through which the Government Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell  was not allowed to wheel his bicycle. Prompting the Minister to say, ' Do you know who I am?' and 'You have not heard the last of this' (this prediction was true as it has been on the front page of the English papers for a week). He also used a volley of swear words and allegedly the word  'plebs'. This last word might, for some reason, end his career.

The Daily Telegraph headline:


 ‎"Mitchell looked Cameron in the eye and vowed he did not say 'plebs' " 



Why is 'plebs' wrong and not f-k? I thought the police were plebs, no? 




plebs [plɛbz]n1. (functioning as plural) the common people; the masses



I can only think that snobbery is becoming a thought crime, like every other form of discrimination in the brave new world of legally enforceable tolerance. It seems only acceptable to be rude about the upper classes (whom the newspapers call 'toffs'),  
conservatives, Catholics and fat people. Although, confusingly, it is all right to be rude about the lower classes if you designate them 'chavs'. 

It is usually people on the Left who despise the lower orders. Police are not working class - they are lower middle - and Mitchell meant they were jacks in office I think - which these ones probably were. On the other hand, people who are rude to small people - as Gordon Brown was - are ghastly.

Perhaps rudeness to ones inferiors  and being an arrogant jerk are sacking matters nowadays. What would Lord Curzon have thought? In any case, Mitchell is, to coin a phrase, a four letter man. The police around Parliament when I worked there were the loveliest Dixon of Dock Green or Ealing comedy types, but even the police, or especially the police, are no longer as deferential as they used to be. They show an alarming tendency to throw their weight around, as is natural in an increasingly authoritarian society, and to forget their station (natural in an officially classless one). Conclusion: I feel little sympathy for minister or policeman. Why did this reach the newspapers anyway?

Brendan O'Neil though a Trotskyite is as usual close to the truth in his blog post on Gategate.

By the way, it seems to me, judging from reading the papers far away in Romania, that Labour ministers made four letter words commonplace in government. 

They also lived with girlfriends or boyfriends without marrying them, whereas Tories conducted adulterous secret affairs but did not openly co-habit with their squeezes, which is the new word for concubines. I suppose it is called moving with the times but I regret both changes.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Sinca Veche, a Transylvanian Stonehenge



Mihai came round early on Sunday morning to take me out with a couple of his boxing friends -- big bald men who filled the car very amply -- and we set off.  Finally, I got the hang of male friendships.  Men are good chaps and, if not as interesting as women or as good at conversation, just as intelligent.

Mihai said we were going to Fagaras, and I thought he meant the town, where I never was, but in fact we were going to Sinca Veche, twenty-eight miles from Brasov and fourteen from Fagaras.  I am ashamed that I had never heard of it.

Sinca Veche is notable for its (former) monastery which is in fact not recognisable as a monastery but is a cave (or grotto) cut out of chalk.  Before it was consecrated by Christians (who built the two small altars or shrines which stand in the middle of the cave-monastery) it was a prehistoric temple which locals say is seven thousand years old.  You enter it through a tunnel cut from the chalk.  Light enters from above, through a hole in the chalk.  The hole was constructed in such a way that the sun shines straight into the temple on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.  It is a kind of Transylvanian Stonehenge.

Mihai, the very learned amateur archaeologist, tells me that chalk cannot be carbon dated and so there is no way of telling the age of the carvings on the walls.  This pleases me. The Star of David ,is carved on the wall and inside it are the ying and yang symbols, though no-one knows who built it or why.  In W.H.Auden's words, it was all so unimaginably long ago.  Long before the Emperor Trajan conquered Dacia, or before prehistoric property developers began building on the seven hills of Rome, Sinca Veche was already ancient.  Or at least it is presumed so, because we do not know for sure.





Sinca Veche - cave monastery





Sinca Veche - cave monastery

In fact, the whole place, as well as the little valley in which the cave sits, and the plateau above the cave, are filled with the most extraordinary peace and sense of spirituality.  Whether this feeling is Christian or pre-Christian, I do not know, but I suspect the latter.

Sinca Veche is in Transylvania, which was for nine hundred years till 1919 part of Hungary, but close to the Wallachian border, which runs along the Carpathian Mountains.  In other words, close to the border between the Near East and the furthest redoubt of Catholic Europe.  When the Orthodox Church was being persecuted by the government of the Empress Maria Theresa, Orthodox priests hid in this place. 

Locals call it the Temple of Fate, believing that the place has a powerful energy, and that if you pray here your prayers will be answered.  Romania has been Christian for a very long time, even if she probably was not converted by the apostle St. Andrew, but it is hard to believe that these beliefs are not very much older than Christianity.  Iris Murdoch said that Protestants let too much light in on mystery.  A great deal of light floods into the monastery or temple at Sinca Veche but it does nothing to illuminate the deep, palpable mystery of the place.

The feeling of calm is something you find much more often in Romania than other countries but it reminded me, in particular, of the grotto of St. Andrew, near the village of Ion Corvin in Dobrudgea, on the way from Bucharest to Constanta, to which Mihai also took me on another occasion. The apostle is supposed, on very flimsy evidence, to have taken shelter there.  The older and newer churches by the grotto are not attractive but the grotto, for some reason, is moving, and the setting itself has a remarkable feeling of heavenly calm.  There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

The journey to Sinca Veche and the exploration of this sacred place had made me very hungry.  We set off in the direction of Fagaras to get some lunch but had a very pleasant surprise on the way: a newly built touristic complex nearby called Inexdor, which was empty in preparation for a wedding party later on, but which nevertheless was able to rustle up a good lunch for us.  We all thought the food - simple Romanian dishes - was excellent and I believe it was good value --  although for some reason I was not allowed to contribute to the bill; yes, these burly, bald, fighting men were, indeed, good chaps.  We said we would go back for a weekend and I look forward to it.

And finally to make the day perfect we altered our return route and came back on the most magical road in the world, as far as I know at least: the Transfagaras Highway, with its fifty miles of dizzying twists and turns.  It is a road that only a dictatorship could have built -- for dictatorships can be extravagant with manual labour -- and this road was built by Ceausescu for defensive purposes.  Not, of course, to defend Romania from attack by NATO, which was never a possibility, but from her ally the Soviet Union.  Compounding the beauty of the abysses and mountains, there is also the Vidraru Dam and Reservoir to admire, as well as the wonderfully dramatic Poienari Castle, perched on a crag, and built by that famous builder and disciplinarian, Vlad the Impaler, who is always identified rather inexactly with Dracula.
My companions, whom I would certainly want on my side in the case of a bar fight, and I agreed that the excursion was as fine a way to fill a day as one could ever imagine.  



To contact the Inexdor touristic complex, which does not have a site, call 0040-727-200 670 or 0040-760 185 912.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat: Ryszard Kapuscinski



Ethiopia is fascinating as nowhere else in Africa is, certainly nowhere south of the Sahara, because under her ancient monarchy, overthrown in 1974, she was neither savage nor civilised but somewhere between the two, like Christian Europe in the Dark Ages. She has one of the longest histories in the world on a continent where most countries have no history at all before the arrival of people from other continents (although the Ethiopians themselves are Semites who originally invaded from Arabia). She become Christian before the Roman Empire did and was never a European colony except for five years under Mussolini. 

Haile Selassie's imperial court, as portrayed by Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocratresembles something from medieval Europe not the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps Athelstan's court was like this or that of William Rufus.

Even before I remembered the stories of Kapuscinski's inventing facts, it was obvious that the first person accounts in The Emperor by members of Haile Selassie's household, which make up the book, were at least greatly rewritten by Kapuscinski. All the palace servants and functionaries tell their stories in exactly the same reverent but ironic voice about the appalling behaviour of 'His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor'. I assumed this was a novel (a novel written as if from different eye witness accounts like one of Joseph Conrad's) more than journalism or oral history. As such it is fairly enjoyable, though it gets slow and finally failed to hold my interest.


"The emperor began his day by listening to informers' reports. The night breeds dangerous conspiracies, and Haile Selassie knew that what happens at night is more important than what happens during the day. During the day he kept an eye on everyone; at night that was impossible. For that reason, he attached great importance to the morning reports. And here I would like to make one thing clear: His venerable majesty was no reader. . . .  

The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: If need be, the emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said. . . . It was the same with writing, for our monarch not only never used his ability to read, but he also never wrote anything and never signed anything in his own hand. Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like." 


This tells us a lot about the court of Haile Selassie but is what it tells us true?  It implies, for example, that he was illiterate, whereas he was in fact a well-read man both in Amharic and French. 

I enjoyed the rebel soldiers in 1974 taking prisoner the general who had purloined the money allotted to buy their food and forcing him to eat their mealy and rotten rations. We are told in  parenthesis that the general was taken to hospital after this. Very droll, but true or false? It is impossible for the reader to know.

John Ryle, in a wonderfully comprehensive demolition of Kapuscinski in the TLS back in 2001, points out that the Emperor:


possessed a large library where he spent long periods of time, and provided copious written comments on manuscripts submitted to him. It seems unlikely that his own palace servants could have been unaware of this.

John Ryle also asserted that the courtly and archaic language in which all the characters speak bears no resemblance to how they could conceivably have spoken in real life.  Kapuscinski invented it for literary and political effect. He probably amalgamated or invented the people he claims to be recording. No doubt the standards of journalistic integrity in Communist Poland were a lot laxer than in the UK, especially for someone who grew up as a fervent Stalinist.

To add to the layers of fictions, Kapuscinski, a convinced socialist, informer and occasional spy, was becoming disillusioned with Polish Communism by the time he wrote The Emperor. He was understood by many of his original Polish readers to be writing not just about the Ethiopian regime but by implication about the Polish Communist regimes of Gomulka and Gierek. After 1989, he said that this is something he intended. But on a more superficial level, he intended a diatribe against a conservative regime, written from a Marxist perspective. This would, for a Soviet bloc hack, have justified the inaccuracies. So the book is political propaganda written by a literary double agent, rather than journalism or history.

I skipped a lot. Irony can be wearing even if you are Henry Fielding or Saki. Only Edward Gibbon and Joseph Conrad can keep it entertaining indefinitely. 

I read this in tandem with Evelyn Waugh's account of Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, Remote People, which made an interesting diptych. I suspect Evelyn Waugh also invented like crazy, but he was writing a travelogue not history. Waugh of course is the better writer. Both were better fiction writers than journalists. Waugh, the Catholic neophyte and arch-conservative, and Kapuscinski, the communist, are equally subjective and offer an equally unflattering picture of Ethiopia under Haile Selassie. Even a monarchist like I can only defend the regime with the arguments that it was a great spiritual force uniting the nation and what came afterwards was very much worse. 

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat is now published in Penguin Modern Classics which is almost entirely a collection of fiction. The only other non fiction books that I recall from the series are Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, both of which purport to be non-fiction but are very unreliable as factual accounts. It doesn't matter so long as they are read as inventions, but, though a good writer, as a journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was appalling. He was even worse than Johann Hari.

This week's quotations



Goethe: "The greatest evil that can befall man is that he should come to think ill of himself."

Dr. Johnson: "To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour."

Joseph Conrad: "...the age in which we are camped like bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel."


Jacob Burckhardt: “Beware the terrible simplifiers.”


Robert Adams: "Translations are like mistresses: the faithful ones are apt to be ugly and the beautiful ones false."

Evelyn Waugh: "We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us, but for ours to amuse them." 

Elizabeth Bowen on Aldous Huxley: "The stupid person's idea of the clever person."

(This was recycled by Julie Burchill about Stephen Fry. Actually, what 
Elizabeth Bowen said was: "Mr. Huxley has been the alarming young man for a long time, a sort of perpetual clever nephew who can be relied on to flutter the lunch-party ... He is at once the truly clever person and the stupid person's idea of the clever person.")

Hilaire Belloc: "Be content to remember that those who can make omelettes properly can do nothing else."

Suzanne Moore: "Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking."

Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart.
Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books written in a foreign       language.
Do not now look for the answers.
They can not be given to you because then you could not live them.
It is a question of experiencing everything.
You need to live the question.
Perhaps you will gradually without even noticing it,
one day find yourself experiencing the answer.”

Roger Scruton: "People are drawn to religion by their consciousness of consciousness, by an awareness of a light shining in the centre of their being."

Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
"Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been;
I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell".

H.D. Trail:
"Look in my face. My name is Used-to-was,
I am also called Played-out and Done-to-death,
And It-will-wash-no-more."


The present Lord Salisbury: "in the long term the facts of life are Tory."

Don Boudreaux: "It’s an immensely curious fact about modern “Progressives” that they dismiss as intellectually handicapped or hopelessly superstitious (or both) those who deny the full reality and role of undesigned, evolved order in the non-human world (especially in the realms of biology, geology, and astronomy), but regard as enlightened and indisputably correct those those who deny the full reality and role of undesigned, evolved order in society."

Caitlin Leverenz, Olympic swimmer: "The best way I feel I can thank God is to use the gift He's given me for His glory and not my own." 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The discreet charm of English cooking

I love English food if you can still find it. Apart from being delicious it seems so eighteenth or nineteenth century. It seems to belong to the world of Surtees, not ours. A masculine, class-bound, sanguinary world, not the world of the Sunday Times supplements or press releases from the Department of Health. Cold game pie, jugged hare, gooseberry pie about which Southey sang, spotted dick, steak and kidney pudding, as good as Elizabethan poetry in their way.


John Bull, Mr. Jorrocks, Mr. Pickwick, Dr. Johnson, Sir Winston Churchill, the great fat English heroes, grew fat on English cooking. Sir John Falstaff too, though he was no hero but a murderer.






I stole this picture, which seems the perfect accompaniment to my argument, from the Facebook wall of my friend and role model Mr. Alex Woodcock-Clark, who commented on it: 

This man is committing about six crimes right here. Possession of a firearm. Owner of a restricted breed dog. Dog off leash. Guarding cholesterol rich pudding. Glorifying morbid obesity. Being an elderly male in a youth culture. Sporting mutton-chop whiskers non-ironically. Plumage of endangered bird in cap.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

I don't like work - no man does


“I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself not for others--what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”


Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

'The average man is an old fogey at twenty-five'

'The average man is an old fogey at twenty-five' (William James) but young fogeys avoid fogeydom altogether. Age doth not wither them - whether or not custom stales them depends on how much variety they possess.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Edward Gibbon on the Ethiopians

From Chapter 42 of the Decline and Fall:

Justinian had been reproached for his alliance with the 
Æthiopians, as if he attempted to introduce a people of savage negroes into the system of civilized society. But the friends of the Roman empire, the Axumites, or Abyssinians, may be always distinguished from the original natives of Africa. The hand of nature has flattened the noses of the negroes, covered their heads with shaggy wool, and tinged their skin with inherent and indelible blackness. But the olive complexion of the Abyssinians, their hair, shape, and features, distinctly mark them as a colony of Arabs; and this descent is confirmed by the resemblance of language and manners, the report of an ancient emigration, and the narrow interval between the shores of the Red Sea. Christianity had raised that nation above the level of African barbarism: their intercourse with Egypt, and the successors of Constantine, had communicated the rudiments of the arts and sciences; their vessels traded to the ifle of Ceylon, and seven kingdoms obeyed the Negus or supreme prince of Abyssinia, The independence of the Homerites, who reigned in the rich and happy Arabia, was first violated by an Æthiopian conqueror: he drew his hereditary claim from the queen of Sheba, and his ambition was sanctified by religious zeal. The Jews, powerful and active in exile, had seduced the mind of Dunaan, prince of the Homerites. They urged him to retaliate the persecution inflicted by the Imperial laws on their unfortunate brethren: some Roman merchants were injuriously treated; and several Christians of Negrawere honoured with the crown of martyrdom. The churches of Arabia implored the protection of the Abyssinian monarch. The Negus passed the Red Sea with a fleet and army, deprived the Jewish proselyte of his- kingdom and life, and extinguished a race of princes, who had ruled above two thousand years the sequestered region of myrrh and frankincense. The conqueror immediately announced the victory of the gospel, requested an orthodox patriarch, and so warmly professed his friendship to the Roman empire, that Justinian was flattered by the hope of diverting the silk-trade through the channel of Abyssinia, and of exciting the forces of Arabia against the Persian king. Their ally, Nonnosus, descended from a family of ambassadors, was named by the emperor to execute this important commission. He wisely declined the shorter, but more dangerous, road through the sandy deserts of Nubia; ascended the Nile, embarked on the Red Sea, and safely landed at the African port of Adulis. From Adulis to the royal city of Axume is no more than fifty leagues, in a direct line but the winding passes of the mountains detained the ambassador fifteen days; and as be traversed the forests, he saw, and vaguely computed, about five thousand wild elephants. The capital, according to his report, was large and populous; and the village of Axume is still conspicuous by the regal coronations, by the ruins of a Christian temple, and by sixteen or seventeen obelisks inscribed with Grecian characters. But the Negus gave audience in the open field, seated on a lofty chariot, which was drawn by four elephants superbly caparisoned, and surrounded by his nobles and musicians. He was clad in a linen garment and cap, holding in his hand two javelins and a light shield; and, although his nakedness was imperfectly covered, he displayed the Barbaric pomp of gold chains, collars, and bracelets, richly adorned with pearls and precious stones. The ambassador of Justinian knelt; the Negus raised him from the ground, embraced Nonnosus, kissed the seal, perused the letter, accepted the Roman alliance, and, brandishing his weapons, denounced implacable war against the worshippers of fire. But the proposal of the silk-trade was eluded; and notwithstanding the assurances, and perhaps the wishes, of the Abyssinians, these hostile menaces evaporated without effect. The Homerites were unwilling to abandon their aromatic groves, to explore a sandy desert, and to encounter, after all their fatigues, a formidable nation from whom they had never received any personal injuries. Instead of enlarging his conquests, the king of Æthiopia was incapable of defending his possessions. Abrahah, the slave of a Roman merchant of Adulis, assumed the sceptre of the Homerites; the troops of Africa were seduced by the luxury of the climate; and Justinian solicited the friendship of the usurper, who honoured, with a slight tribute, the supremacy of his prince. After a long series of prosperity, the power of Abrahah was overthrown before the gates of Mecca; his children were despoiled by the Persian conqueror; and the Æthiopians were finally expelled from the continent of Asia. This narrative of obscure and remote events is not foreign to the decline and fall of the Roman empire. If a Christian power had been maintained in Arabia, Mahomet must have been crushed in his cradle, and Abyssinia would have prevented a revolution which has changed the civil and religious state of the world.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

I discover I have written a book



I recounted the words in my blog posts about my holiday in Africa and Dubai. I had miscounted before. Not twenty pages but forty five! Seventy five including the pictures! I have written a slim book about Ethiopia and Zanzibar and didn't know it!







Now for brilliant book on Bucharest, mon amour.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Money in a poor country and money in a rich country are two different things



Mr. Kapuchitsky, do you know what money means in a poor country? Money in a poor country and money in a rich country are two different things. In a rich country, money is a piece of paper with which you buy goods on the market. You are only a customer. Even a millionaire remains a customer. He may purchase more, but he remains a customer, nothing more. And in a poor country? In a poor country, money is a wonderful, thick hedge, dazzling and always blooming, which separates you from everything else. Through that hedge you do not see creeping poverty, you do not smell the stench of misery, and you do not hear the voices of the human dregs. But at the same time you know that all of that exists, and you feel proud of yourself because of your hedge. You have money; that means you have wings. You are the bird of paradise that everyone admires.

Ryszard Kapuścińsky, The Emperor

This, spoken by an Ethiopian, applies to some extent to Romania as well as Africa. Romanians are becoming very used to the sight of the rich in every newspaper, on television and driving sports cars round Bucharest but the Romanian rich are still not used to being rich.

Is one spelling of Mahomet or Muhammed etc. correct?


I wonder why there are so many spellings of Mahomet or Muhammed or whatever he is called, whether any spelling is  'correct' and if so which. 

I came across this on the net:


Inexact spellings such as "Mecca" and "Koran" entered the English language a long time ago and have become so entrenched that they are now difficult to eradicate. In old books the Prophet's name is frequently spelled as "Mahomet" and this is still used to some extent today. There is no logical reason for it because Muhammad is one Arabic name that can easily be rendered in a way that is both phonetically accurate and faithful to its written form. 
Assuming this is true, it seems to me when writing English the correct spelling is surely Mahomet, if this entered the English language a long time ago. Incidentally the Latin version is Mahometus, which reinforces this view. What Arabs say is beside the point. Romanians call Jesus Christ Isus Hristos without caring what the Aramaic version is. (I think His Blessed Mother called Him Eashoa or thereabouts. Joshua is much closer to that than Jesus).

So that's sorted out.

However I think correctness is a very fatuous ignis fatuus and we should all spell foreign names as we choose.

There is a town called Mahomet, Illinois, about which Wikipedia curiously says

Although the unusual spelling, which is French for Mohammed, sometimes confuses newcomers, the pronunciation of Mahomet is muh-HOMM-it.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Books read 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.
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon.

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

What a masculine, middle-aged, rather philistine 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. 

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 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) but the new book by Tom Holland on the origins of the Koran sounds good. Holland apparently 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.

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. 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 Madeleine Farrar-Hockley 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 which 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 in comparison with another fine 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 Americans seem eerie.

The Psychopath's Bible is a reminder that psychopaths though amoral 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.

Monsignor Vladimir Ghika

Monsignor Vladimir Ghika, a Romanian prince who converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism, became a priest, worked with the poor around the world and came back to Romania knowing he would be killed, is one of the greatest and least-known heroes in a land, Romania, where cynics are more common than idealists. I have been meaning to write about him  for years but have not done so, so I am posting a link to a blog post about the Monsignor that I recently came across. 

A friend of mine described him as 'the whole Dostoyeskian deal'. Catholics in Romania are hoping that he will be canonised but first, of course, a verified miracle caused by his intercession is required by Rome. To call this man a great Romanian or even to call him a saint seems to belittle him. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

In Ethiopia with Dervla and a mule





I made a very poor fist of researching Ethiopia before I went last month and I only read Evelyn Waugh's Waugh in Abyssinia and took Dervla Murphy's book, In Ethiopia with a Mule with me. 

Dervla  Murphy's story is wonderfully inspiring because she achieved her childhood ambition, which Freud said is the secret of happiness, even though it was a crazy one.

“On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as gifts, and a few days later I decided to cycle to India...However, I was a cunning child so I kept my ambition to myself, thus avoiding the tolerant amusement it would have provoked among my elders.”


She left school at fourteen to look after her sick mother and spent her twenties doing so. When her mother died, she was free to travel and 'like an elastic stretched to breaking point' as she said, she immediately set out from Ireland for India by bicycle. In India she met Penelope Betjeman in the street. Mrs. Betjeman was fascinated but this Irish colleen who had made such a remarkable journey, loved her postcards and persuaded her to write. Jock Murray commissioned a book. Destiny and a great example of how the universe conspires to make you succeed, if you remain true to your true ambitions. 


It reminds me of the lines by Philip Larkin:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.


Dervla (I can't call her Miss Murphy as I should) visited Ethiopia in 1966, when the Beatles were cutting records, England and Ireland had heavy pennies, shillings and half-crowns and other countries had small, lightweight decimal coinage. 1966 is a long time ago and a very long time ago in Ethiopia. 


The Emperor Haile Selassie was on the throne, of course, and in the countryside when Dervla went 99% of the country people were illiterate. When I went, the children, even the barefoot ones, spoke to me in English and asked me to test them on the names of the capitals of the world. (They got every answer right.)  

Sydney Greenstreet says to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, ‘By Jove, you are a character, sir!’ and by Jove so is Dervla Murphy. Her intention was to walk from the coast of Eritrea to Addis Ababa across mountainous and inhospitable terrain but her feet gave in at the outset and she was persuaded to take a mule whom she named Jock after her publisher. She has a keen sense of beauty and is observant and acute but it is her energy, courage and knack of getting herself put up in all sorts of unlikely kraals which make one read on.

"Within fifteen minutes I had been accepted by the settlement-as a most puzzling phenomenon, it is true, but also as someone to be fed, and joked with."

You do not read her for her prose style, although it is vigorous, clear and workmanlike. She is not a Fermor or an Evelyn Waugh. But you read her almost as much because of her as because of the places she visits.

‘It is not part of our culture to travel alone,’ an Ethiopian says to her and everywhere people try to provide her with bodyguards and guides. She represents, as the Irish sometimes do, an extreme example of Western individualism, whereas Ethiopia is a traditional society that thinks in terms of families, not individual fulfilment. I came to adopt the Ethiopians’ point of view. Why did she have to risk her life so often? One reviewer spoke of the ‘gothic levels of discomfort’ that she endured (often unnecessarily). One particular passage – she is on a narrow mountain ledge above a chasm with a reluctant mule - gave me vertigo just reading it, which shows she is a good writer but a foolhardy traveller. My unsympathetic feeling, after reading several accounts of difficult terrain, illness, exhaustion and unfriendly natives was – why not take the bus? In the end, after finding a man who was kind to his mules to adopt Jock, she does just that.


She was nearly murdered, while walking across a treacherous marsh, by some men led by a priest in full ceremonial robes and carrying a censer, who had made a career change and swapped the cure of souls for leading a gang of brigands. After being robbed but allowed to live (the priest had voted for killing her), she promptly almost died sinking in quicksand. The mule saved her by standing there (mulishly I suppose) while she clambered out pulling on his reins. This story ended happily. The police took her to the camp where the criminals were hiding and arrests were made - and beatings administered by the police about which she was very indignant. Evelyn Waugh would have had fun with this.


She hates the very faint signs of incipient tourism and complains about

"the corruption by Western superficialities of a non-Western mind which then quickly rejects its own traditions while remaining incapable of extracting any virtue from ours."
Lalibela had just started to get a daily tourist flight when she went and her irritation that it had recently acquired a hotel (the Seven Olives, where she and I stayed) is understandable, I suppose. In the 1950s Thomas Pakenham had been told Lalibela received only four or five tourist visits a year. Now Lalibela has several hotels, but it is still not yet spoilt, though it is no longer innocent. It is going through its Lolita phase.

I wonder what Dervla would think if she returned. I wonder too how much she really understood but what is important is what she saw, rather than what she understood. D.H. Lawrence started writing about Italy as soon as he arrived and this was right. He was writing about the feelings Italy inspired in him and this is what interests us. As Mircea Eliade said, we travel to explore our unconscious mind.  Ethiopians can write about how they believe things are and be right on details. They cannot know how things appear to an intelligent outsider from a more developed society.  

The Ethiopia she saw was not today's Ethiopia of fast economic growth. And, of course, it is not Communism, which led to murders and droughts, but 
capitalism (in some cases it is true thanks to Communist China) that is changing the country. The villages remain the same but the peasants now often wear clothes made by Chinese political prisoners and mobile telephones are transforming their universe very slowly but surely. In towns, internet cafes came five or ten years back and are doing their trade, though often with internet connections that rarely work. 


Dervla does not blame Hollywood or Western culture for the promiscuity she detects in many Ethiopians and this is a reminder that not all traditional cultures are chaste. I have read that in Africa before colonialisation, or even  eighty years ago, men and women were sexually conservative. Africa is a big place and perhaps Ethiopia is an exception. It seems to be from Dervla's account. A priest, with whose family she lodged in a kraal, offered her his daughter for the night, thinking his guest was a man. When the girl reached under Dervla's clothes and found a mistake had been made, Dervla and the whole family laughed uproariously.


In her day almost all infrastructure that was at all well constructed had been built by the Italians between 1936 and 1941 (it is still somewhat similar in Albania) and she reports that everywhere Ethiopians speak well of what the Italians had built. It is hard not to draw the lesson that colonialism benefitted Africa and would in many ways have benefitted Ethiopia Other accounts of the barbarity of Haile Sellassie's Ethiopia bear this out, including the Emperor's own account. But Ethiopia is the fascinating country she is because, unlike the rest of black Africa, she was only a colony for five years. (Liberia, the other apparent exception, was in reality for 150 years ruled by American colonists, who happened to be black.) And alone in Africa, and one wonders if this is because they are Semites, Ethiopians have a long history, an ancient church and had until recently an even more ancient monarchy. A  very old-fashioned, 
High Tory country (sex aside) and a fascinatingly strange one.





Interesting etymology of rigmarole





1736, "a long, rambling discourse," from an altered, Kentish colloquial survival of ragman roll "long list or catalogue" (1520s), in Middle English a long roll of verses descriptive of personal characters, used in a medieval game of chance called Rageman, perhaps from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon "Ragemon the good," which was the heading on one set of the verses, referring to a character by that name.

Queen's oldest corgi dies

The Daily Telegraph is becoming increasingly dumbed down and sometimes illiterate. It talks without shame of "MPs fiddling expenses". It is trendy rather than socially conservative and  regularly publishes things in favour of abortion, homosexual marriage and feminism. It even has a section of its site called Celebrity news. But it is a real pleasure to see this headline in today's paper, which might be the dullest headline I ever saw (good newspapers are supposed to be boring, and especially conservative, monarchist ones):



Queen's oldest corgi dies


Even the Telegraph of Lord Hartwell did not produce a duller headline. It is so very boring that it is almost interesting for that reason.

Itegue Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa

I did not book a hotel in Addis Ababa and I cannot recommend too highly the Hotel Jupiter Cazanchis, a four star hotel where I was looked after extremely well. But I usually like to stay in the oldest hotel in town and when I go back, as I intend to next year, I shall certainly stay at the oldest in Addis, where Evelyn Waugh stayed. Lord Deedes makes it sound marvellous.


I mourn Lord Deedes.  I almost had lunch with him once. He was always on my list of Ten Greatest Living Englishmen when I was a teenager, along with Graham Greene, Sir John Betjeman, Sir Alec Guinness, Edward Norman, Lord Hailsham, Enoch Powell and Robert Robinson, as well as, oddly since I don't like cricket, Brian Johnson. I wonder who was the tenth?

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Harar is the real thing

"Before either had spoken the General sized William up; in any other department he would have been recognized as a sucker; here, amid the trappings of high adventure, he was, more gallantly, a greenhorn. "Your first visit to Ishmaelia, eh? Then perhaps I can be of some help to you. As no doubt you know, I was there in '97 with poor `Sprat' Larkin." "I want some cleft sticks, please," said William firmly. Miss Barton was easier to deal with. "We can have some cloven for you," she said brightly."
Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

I fly - after Ethiopean Airline's invariable long delay - to Dire Dawa which by contrast to Lalibela is hot, tropical and feels Caribbean. I only drive through it on my way from and to the airport but the buzz Is very palpable. Then a crowded minibus through wonderful scenery and gathering dusk to Harar. 


As in Dervla Murphy's day, there is always a schoolmaster to speak to you in English though now very many other people also speak English. Damn the English language, that dissolvent of parochialism. I sat next to a P.E teacher who told me, 'Every Ethiopian hates Ethiopia.' I understood this unpatriotic sentiment perfectly. Every Ethiopian is now aware that he is poor when within living memory Ethiopians felt superior to the rest of mankind. 

The schoolmaster was interesting at first but he ran out of themes and I wanted to watch the villages and the landscape (beautiful, dark green). I suggested this, I hope politely. He replied, 'What are the staple foods of Britain?'  'Oh, please.' He later got off the bus without a word to me.

I chose Harar on instinct, without any research, but it is the perfect choice, though no longer a mostly Muslim city. It is full of people drinking beer and easy girls, unlike in Evelyn Waugh's time, but the old city promises to be different. The Tana Hotel where I alight seems a series of very noisy bars and possibly a bordello but I later hear it is the best hotel in town. I move on to an Italian built hotel, the Ras Hotel, which had been recommended to me by a Mexican Jew in Addis, as cheap and pleasant. It feels like a gaol and costs $10. I saw a cockroach in the bathroom but the bed was clean. It does have a good restaurant and an internet cafe and there I befriend a nice guide called Hailu. I ate a very good Yemeni dish called Monday or something similar. I stayed the next night too from force of inertia but upgraded to the wonderful suite which runs along the front of the building and costs $20. One can imagine a young Fascist colonel holding parties in it.

August 6

Harar is the real thing. The Ethiopian highlands and its churches and castles I vaguely knew about but waking here in this Stalinist prison (Mussolini era actually) for which they charge you $10 (with excellent breakfast) I feel transfigured.

The strangest, but delicious, breakfast today with a completely unpronounceable name containing spicy meat. The only element I recognised was injera.

Harar is said to be the fourth holiest city in Islam but I do not know why nor who decides these things. When I was in Kairouan in Tunisia it claimed to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

Dervla Murphy is my companion after Steve left and I am unable to resist internet cafes and broadcasting to my 1,056 Facebook friends who are my other companions. In the internet cafe in the hotel I read this by Dervla and feel I did not score highly. I only obeyed rules 1, 3 and 4 - am ashamed I neglected 2.

I am enjoying Dervla's account of her journey across Ethiopia by mule - she deplores the very outset of tourism and I am with her but it has not got very far - certainly not here in Harar. But travel with Facebook and email is wrong. I wonder if Hararis have heard of Paris Hilton.

I asked. They had not. 

Nor Madonna. 



No point in going to Zanzibar after Harar but I have to honour the ticket.

Hailu took me round.



This man makes shoes from worn out car tyres. Customers call them 'thousand-milers'. 










19th century house in the walled Muslim city where I shall stay if I go back next year en route to Somaliland.





The old mosque to which kaffirs are forbidden access - the exterior is modern and uninteresting alas.




The Egyptian Mosque - late 19th Century, pretty but closed. 


A shrine to a Muslim holy man.


The exquisitely lovely mosques of Constantinople make Islam seem very beautiful. Muslim piety is attractive and moving but here, though it is exotic to white travellers, Islam struck me as a utilitarian and man made creed. It is spiritual yet seems to lack a dimension. For some reason, on this journey Islam reminded me of Communism.

Sir Richard Burton was the first white man to enter Harar, where an ancient tradition said that the city would decline should a Christian ever set foot there. He and his companions risked death or a ghastly imprisonment by doing so. He described Harar as 


'the ancient metropolis of a once mighty race, the only permanent settlement in Eastern Africa, the reported seat of Muslim learning, a walled city of stone houses ... the emporium of the coffee trade, the head-quarters of slavery.'

Burton stayed with the Emir for ten days, officially as a guest but really his prisoner, and was soon bored. After leaving Harar, things became much less dull and he came close to dying of thirst. Englishmen are better and worse, but much smaller, than in his day. (I am also struck that people wrote better about Africa then than now, because they knew there was such a thing as the psychology of nations).


Burton gives an account of chewing quat - the mildly narcotic herb favoured by Muslims because their religion forbids drinking alcohol though Hailu told me the Muslims of Harar mostly disregard this rule and that forbidding sex before marriage. A beauty salon ('Beutiy salon) I partook in the coffee ceremony and rank the best coffee I ever tasted. A young man gave me much quat and i chewed manfully without any discernible effect. It tastes ghastly and gives some a stomach ache but did nothing to or for me.

In Burton's day and in mine, Harar had over eighty mosques but I only saw two and and wonder where the rest were.

It was only when I got to Harar that people told me that here Arthur Rimbaud spent his last years, as an arms dealer and respected pillar of the community. I didn't go to see the museum in his supposed house, since the books told me he never lived there and in fact it was built years after his death. General Gordon, when he was still Colonel Gordon, was also in Harar. Sylvia Pankurst's account of Gordon's time in Harar is here

Later, when Harar was a couple of hours by car from the nearest station, someone who means more to me than these great men, Evelyn Waugh, visited twice. In his day, before the Italians came, the old town built from mud was still the whole of Harar. Waugh's friend, Patrick Balfour, who was also there in 1935, wrote:


Here, for the first time in Abyssinia was a town, not a mere conglomeration of native hovels and European shacks. Here were streets: a bewildering network of them, high and narrow, but well-built and on a coherent plan.




Feeding hyenas at the edge of town at sunset is supposedly an old tradition to bring good luck to the city but this daily event dates back about fifty years. It felt thoroughly touristy, even though Harar has few tourists - there were six the evening I went, five of us in Hailu's party. I was very disdainful at the time (we tourists are the biggest snobs) but I was too superior. I realise now that it is the way two local eccentrics make a little money and keep a sort of tradition alive. Read more here.


Dinner with Hailu. He is a Christian who, oddly enough, was born in the Old Town. He has as many Muslim friends as Christian. There are no problems between the two communities in Harar he says. He takes his religion seriously, I presume, or at least is about to embark on one of the Ethiopian Church's severe fasts the next day. He tells me ten years ago Muslim girls were supposed to be chaste before marriage but no longer. 'Now we are living in the modern world.' Sir Richard Burton would have approved.


Dervla says the Ethiopians drink a lot and I saw a girl drunk in the street at ten in the morning in predominantly Muslim Harar. The place is full of bars where people are drinking beer and Ramadan seems ignored.



Hailu seems to like Mengistu, who was born in Harar. This is no excuse as so was Haile Selassie.

. 
I am horrified to see across the road a billboard proclaiming a hotel called ' 5 Star Hotel.' I hoped this was a wooden lie but Hailu tells me it is true. Who will stay there? 'UN people.' 


August  7


Country and Western playing  in the internet cafe at my hotel. Globalisation is bloody.

Walk with Hailu round the old town and we see the Egyptian mosque and buy some coffee in the market and fail to buy me a  t shirt – I am fatter than the fattest people in Harar perhaps I should have bought an I Love Ethiopia one but I couldn’t bring myself to.

From Harar to Addis – heavenly ride seated thanks to Hailu in the front of the minibus and as comfortable as if I had my own driver – heavenly scenery- villages – life. I am seeing life but I never take part. The best part of my holiday so far. Cost, 100 birr = EUR 4.

At the airport I am told the plane to Addis has been cancelled and I must wait till tomorrow but after some discussion it appears that the departure of my plane has been brought forward two hours and is on the point of leaving. 'You were not informed?' 'No!' I am given a seat in business class and arrive in Addis early where it is cool and raining and I am safe in the hotel. 

I consider luxury hotels immoral and deeply corrupt and usually avoid them but I seem to need things done for me much more than most people and I think I need good hotels more than most people. I am getting far more than my money's worth from the Hotel Jupiter Cazanchis in Addis. It has become a surrogate mother to whose teat I cling.


My bedroom is on the first floor and overlooks the front of the hotel. Slightly to the left is scrubland, in which stand tiny houses made of corrugated iron, beside a large heap of broken tiles. Two boys in front of one of the shacks are cleaning a pair of jeans with a bar of soap.