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

The Saint Smashes Communist Menace!



I didn't watch the hugely successful TV series of The Saint, which all my contemporaries loved, aetat 5, (I hope I wasn't even then an intellectual snob) but I read one of or two of the books in my teens - they have a charm. How exotic Leslie Charles made Biarritz and Madrid sound, but they sounded utterly exotic anyway to me, who had never visited anywhere more interesting than the Low Countries and the Rhineland with my Mum and Dad. 
File:Leslie Charteris.jpg
Leslie Bowyer-Yin


Leslie Charteris was the pen-name of Leslie Bowyer-Yin, who was a half-white, half-Chinese boy from Singapore. He left King's after his first year, after selling his first book, which seems to me rather stylish. In his way, he was a great Cambridge man. How different a Kingsman from E.M. Forster or Salman Rushdie, but almost as good a writer as those two.

His death passed unremarked by most of the press but The Washington Post published an obituary which said:

Mr. Charteris shared many characteristics with his creation - both were rich, tall and handsome and lived a champagne lifestyle. 
While Templar, a sort of modern Robin Hood in a tuxedo, socked jaws, threw knives and sorted out the bad guys, his creator wrote books that made him into one of the most popular mystery novelists of modern times.

Like Raffles and Arsene Lupin, Simon Templar, 'The Saint', was a post-modern, a thief who was a hero. This was the beginning of the nihilistic age in which we now find ourselves bivouac-ed.

I can think of several English male friends for whom The Saint and James Bond were and are role models, though as far as I know they do not purloin jewels. They drive fast cars and chase young girlfriends. Eastern Europe, which still has not 'received' feminism, is a good stamping ground for them. I remember David Short, the publisher, saying that when he was a boy he thought that when he grew up life would be like The Saint, with girls dancing in cages in nightclubs but when he did grow up he found that feminism had happened and it wasn't like that. But in Eastern Europe, he said with gratitude, feminism had not happened and it was just like living in The Saint. I suppose he was right. 

Perhaps I should throw away my distaste for materialism and develop a champagne lifestyle, at least on occasion, but Simon Templar and James Bond were not my heroes. Steed was my childhood hero and Richard Hannay was another, but my greatest role model was Lord Macaulay, writing his letters in Albany or in his club. Scripts are written for us when we are very young and we follow them.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Pagans and Christians

I am at last reading Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians and finding it interesting and informative but less of a joy than I expected. He writes reasonably, but not exceptionally, well but his learning is vast and his insights seem astute to a general reader like me. I wish he took the story up to the first century of Islam but of this very little is known.

It is unusual for a historian to write authoritatively about both Christians and pagans, as does Lane Fox. He admits his debt to Gibbon but finds much evidence to show that Gibbon greatly exaggerated the loss of faith in the old gods before Constantine's conversion. Only a highly educated few did not believe that the pagan gods intervened in human affairs. One is interested to see parallels between this folk religion and later folk Catholicism and I wished the book drew them out

One thing Lane Fox makes clear is that, of course, the second century church was much more puritanical about sexual morality than almost any modern Christians. Virginity was prized very highly and even sexual intercourse within marriage was suspect, at least for some. Homosexual activity and divorce followed by remarriage, both of which were considered absolutely normal in the Roman world, were always considered grave sins by Christians, as were abortion and infanticide. This distinguished Christians from Jews who, following the Mosaic law, allowed divorce and disapproved of abortion from concern for the health of the mother, rather than the unborn child. Christians today who condemn abortion and homosexual acts are therefore not distorting Christian doctrine. Au contraire. Liberal theologians who maintain that sexual rules are not really part of Christianity are simply wrong, unless they argue that the church taught differently in the first century, but we know from the letters of St. Paul and from other writings that this was not the case. Jesus, a first century Jew, of course considered fornication and sodomy as sins. The change he made was to make sexual morality much stricter by abolishing divorce and this is the rule which, according to Lane Fox, early Christians found hardest to accept.

Lane Fox explains how homosexuality and bisexuality were taken or granted in the ancient world, for men, and goes on to say:
As for homosexuality, Paul and the early epistles agreed with the accepted Jewish view that it was a deadly sin that provoked God's wrath. It led to earthquakes and natural disasters, which were evident in the fate of Sodom. The absence of Gospel teaching on the subject did not amount to tacit approval. All orthodox Christians knew that homosexuals went to hell, until a modern minority tried to make them forget it.

The last part of the book is a detailed discussion about St. Constantine, the Emperor Constantine the Great. I knew very little about him except that he was a murderer and adopted Christianity for pragmatic reasons. Lane Fox is convincing that Constantine's conversion was very genuine and a deep change of heart. 

Constantine deserves better than any other historical figure the soubriquet 'Great'. He transformed Europe far more than Napoleon or even Hitler and, unlike those two, he transformed it for the better. He also transformed Christianity. He also created Constantinople and the Byzantine cultural space in which I am typing these words, in my office in Bucharest. His reasons for executing his wife and son I do not know.

One of the reasons Constantine was converted was because, very understandably, he saw the hand of God in his victories over his opponents. So did other Christians. This belief that God intervenes in history was what made the early Muslims believe their prophet was the true one. It made the British and the Americans, who borrowed the idea from the British, believe that God had given them a special destiny. It has recently, for some reason, gone out of fashion even in America, as I discuss here

The idea that God is visible in history was replaced by Marx with the idea that the historical process is God and I think this illusion continues to influence progressive thinkers.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

"They're trivial: like dogs in their lusts. We destroyed Christianity yet had its benefits."

Martin Rowson 10.11.12
Cartoon in today's Guardian greeting the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury


The Bishop of Durham, it was announced yesterday, will be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He quoted, in an interview today with The Guardian, John Maynard Keynes writing to his fellow atheist, Virginia Woolf, in 1934: 

"Our generation - yours and mine.... owed a great deal to our fathers' religion. And the young ... who are brought up without it will never get so much out of life. They're trivial: like dogs in their lusts. We had the best of both worlds. We destroyed Christianity yet had its benefits."
Lord Keynes, as he then wasn't.

Keynes sounds like Margaret Thatcher saying in a speech the 1970s, before she became Prime Minister,  

"We who live off the moral capital of the Victorians..."

The current Hungarian Prime Minister, the much reviled (by The Guardian) Prime Minister of Hungary, made a related point recently:


I have this feeling that a majority of European leaders have lost their faith in what made Europe great and into an influential factor in the world. Moreover, it seems as if it would be something shameful or something forbidden to talk about this issue. We can not help to see that those who are coming up now, stand firm for their spiritual identity: the Islamic peoples to Islam, the Asian peoples to Asian traditions and their spiritual system. It’s not just about God, but also about the culture that was influenced by their traditional beliefs. We on the other hand reject the power that comes from the fact that this is the world of Christian culture. The successful ones make sure that there is no future without children and family.

And contemporary America is also losing her faith, as I blogged here.

Individuals and nations have to find a meaning to their lives. Belief itself is perhaps even more important than what you believe in.

Life is hard; it's harder if you're stupid.





Apparently John Wayne said:
Life is hard; it's harder if you're stupid.

My first reaction was not true - the reverse is the case.

But on reflection? Unintelligent people do not necessarily worry less because they do not know all the things there are to worry about. Life should be least hard for people who have what a friend of mine (who has one) calls a leader's IQ - high, but not too high. Tony Blair's not Wittgenstein's. On the other hand my friend's life is pretty hard. He is a true leader but has no-one to lead.

The 'signature' on my emails, taken from the strip cartoon Calvin and Hobbs, says: 
People think it must be fun to be a super genius but they don't realise how hard it is to put up with all the idiots in the world.
It may reveal too much about me.

I remember that a wise man I knew once told me there were three kinds of people you can't touch: very intelligent people; rich people; and people with a religious faith. Yes and no. It is easier to manipulate intelligent people than less intelligent ones and it is certainly possible to manipulate religious people and fools with money. 


Lord Curzon's 15 Good Reasons Against the Grant of Female Suffrage

I regard women as superior and I don’t like to see them trying to become men’s equal.
Violet Markham, speaking in October 1910.

I am satisfied with my present position, and of my almost unlimited power of usefulness, that I have no need of a vote, and should not use it if I had it. 
Edith Milner, writing in The Times, 29 October 1906.

I frown hearing the suffragettes invoked by feminists who complain that there are not enough women in political life, as if as many women want to have political, or any, careers as men.

People increasingly talk about the Suffragettes as if they were admirable when they were nothing of the sort. Their extra-legal activity set back the cause of giving the vote to women by years. Women were eventually given the vote by the Conservatives as a reward for their contribution to the war effort in the Great War.


Giving the vote to women led to a great accession of strength for the right, as the liberals in Europe always knew it would. Had women not had the vote Labour would have won every British election from 1945 to 1979 inclusive. I do not have more recent figures. From a conservative point of view, giving women the vote, in the language of Sellars and Yeatman, was a Good Thing.


Most British women did not want the vote until they were given it, including plenty of feminists. 'Lord Curzon's 15 Good Reasons Against the Grant of Female Suffrage' are here and here. I wish I could find online his speeches to the Women's Anti-Suffrage League of which Mrs. Humphrey Ward, the novelist, was the president. I know he said this when he addressed the League:


What is the good of talking about the equality of the sexes?   The first whiz of the bullet, the first boom of the cannon and where is the equality of the sexes then?

It was a more innocent era and one for which one sometimes pines, now that the House of Commons has family-friendly hours that allow the Government to pass what bills it pleases. 


As for women bishops...

Friday, 9 November 2012

History doesn't repeat itself. Historians repeat one another.



The only lesson history teaches is that history teaches no lessons. A.J.P. Taylor


AJP Taylor was very Shavian and strove to speak in paradoxes (I do too). It would certainly be true to say that the lessons drawn from history and put into practice are almost always mistaken. For example the lesson we have drawn from the Nazis is that ethnically mixed societies are ipso facto good things rather than ipso facto volatile things. 

George W. Bush drew the wrong lessons from World War II by attacking Iraq, as I used to think did Eden over Suez, but I think now that maybe Eden drew exactly the right ones. Perhaps the difference between drawing the right and wrong lessons is how things turn out after you put the lessons into practice. Taylor is more right than wrong.

As A.J.P. Taylor also said, we learn from the mistakes of the past to make new mistakes in the future.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Was Guy Fawkes set up?


Please to remember
Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

Tonight is Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night in England. It is the day when English fathers try their best to set off fireworks in back gardens, to celebrate the foiling of the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening in 1605, a story which my generation knows from the admirable Ladybird Adventures from History series. Bonfires are lit and 'guys' (from Guy Fawkes, the leader of the plot) are burnt.

Actually, this is not quite true - more and more, because of omnipresent health and safety concerns, private fireworks are discouraged by the anxious British state. Its anti-Catholic meaning also sits uncomfortably with the syncretic and relativist spirit of our age. Hallowe'en, its religious meaning forgotten, is much more congenial to opinion formers, but even children going knocking on neighbours' doors has its dangers. One sometimes feels that the British government would really like its subjects to stay at home in the evenings and watch propaganda on television.


I once met Fr. Francis Edwards, a lovely old Jesuit, who wrote a book suggesting, on circumstantial evidence, that the Gunpowder Plot was laid by Cecil, not by the Catholics, and that half of the 'plotters' were employed by Cecil and promised that they would be set free unharmed. Instead, they were all hanged, drawn and quartered. 
Fr. Edwards' ideas are summarised here.

File:Gunpowder Plot conspirators.jpg

This part is chilling:

Cecil promised the conspirators they would be allowed to escape or pardoned and then broke his promise. How could he convince Catesby and co they would not be executed? There was the precedent of the “Main Plot” three years previously. The conspirators in that had reached the scaffold and were kneeling in the straw and about to put their heads on the block when a royal messenger with the king’s pardon dramatically revealed himself. Cecil could have assured the gunpowder conspirators that the same thing would happen to them.

....The other conspirators were lodged in the Tower in exceptionally comfortable conditions, which was odd, because they were supposed to be murderers and traitors of the worst kind. They had plentiful food and drink and were allowed an unlimited supply of tobacco, which was then a luxury. At their trial in Westminster Hall they looked nonchalant and unconcerned. They attempted neither to justify their conspiracy nor to beg for mercy. Such conduct is compatible with the notion that they regarded the trial as just a formality and thought they were secure from execution. Their high living must have increased their sense of security. One can imagine them going to the scaffold with the same unconcern. Until almost the last, they would have assumed they were all right.


The Church of England hierarchy in those times were men of a different stamp from the bishops of our own day, who read The Guardian in the Athenaeum and talk about global warming:


A special committee, including Anglican bishops, was set up to try to devise an especially horrible and painful form of execution to fit the nature of the crime. But the members are unable to think up anything suitable and settle for the conventional hanging, drawing and quartering.

As Evelyn Waugh said, talking about the horrible martyrdom of St. Edmund Campion, the Church of England still had some way to go before it became the institution described in the novels of Anthony Trollope. 



Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Maramures: The Last Peasants


"The country is holding its breath today," read The Times. “Tension and nerves will be felt by millions who know that the bombers have chosen Thursday as a day of atrocity.”
The world has been rewritten by the writers of cheap thrillers. And not necessarily present day thrillers. We feel as if we are in the neurotic pre-1914 landscape of William Le Queux or early Edgar Wallace.
While Londoners were waiting pensively in the tube I was in another kind of pre-1914 landscape, driving through villages in the Maramures, the northern edge of Transylvania bordering on Ukraine. Here life hasn’t changed very much in centuries but it will soon change utterly. Here in the most conservative part of Romania, Europe’s least modern country, peasants have not completely given up traditional costumes, for example. Such tractors as were to be found here under Communism were long ago sold off and horse-drawn ploughs are universal. Old women in black scatter seed in the fields. This is subsistence farming of a kind which had disappeared elsewhere and must soon disappear here too.
It took me fifteen years to get to Maramures. In 1990 when everyone in the Transylvanian countryside wore traditional costume to Mass and cars were scarcely seen, I asked my Romanian companion, ‘Is this the poorest part of Romania?’ It was my first day here. ‘No, it’s the richest. Can’t you tell?” A disconcerting reply. ‘If you want to see somewhere poor and old fashioned you should go to Maramures. In Maramures they’re still living in the Stone Age.’
In those fifteen years Maramures has changed like the rest of Romania. Gloucestershire has been bought up by stockbrokers wanting weekend cottages and Maramures I had read was full of villas built by customs officers and police colonels.  And there are plenty of big new houses around. A lot fewer people wear costume every day than did when I missed my first chance to visit. Tourism is bigger business now than it was then and there is a steady stream of foreign visitors but the area still feels pretty undiscovered, well protected by its inaccessibility. You can’t get there easily from anywhere by car, train or plane.
In Maramures villages men in hats and women with scarves, aged from thirty upwards, spend a lot of time sitting on roadside benches. They look attentively at each car or pedestrian that passes and conversation languishes. Tranquil is I suppose the word. The bomb explosions in London seemed unreal to Londoners but less real in Maramures.
Agrotourism, putting up with peasants, is the joy of travelling in Romania. This is tourism on a human scale, bespoke. You are a lodger but treated as a friend.  Catch it before its innocence has been lost and before Romania enters the E.U. in 2007. Your hosts who are subsistence farmers provide milk for your coffee fresh from the cow at the end of the garden. How much will be lost when EU health regulations bring all this to an end.
The priest’s wife in the village of Botiza, Mrs Victoria Berdecaru, has revived the carpet making industry in the village, organised a very neat crafts museum and organises accommodation for visitors. I stayed with Vasile the handsome 40 year-old local carpenter and handyman who built the museum and who told me ‘I do everything except dig graves. I won’t dig graves.’
I came on a chance impulse to see the 38th edition of the Hora La Prislop festival. Horas  are traditional Romanian dances and every village has its dances. Hora La Prislop is held on a mountainside and participants from villages throughout the Maramures compete for prizes. It attracts a big well-mannered audience who sit on the grass watching the stage neither eating, drinking nor talking. I also noticed three or four foreigners, one bestrewn with two large and expensive cameras. The festival is great fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon if you repress the adage about trying everything once except incest or Morris dancing.
The date of the first festival, 1968, is telling. Nicolae Ceausescu was just beginning to wrap himself in the flag and emphasise the traditions of the Romanian peasantry, twenty years before he began to knock down villages to make way for agro-industrial complexes. We were back in the 1970s and you expected to see local party dignitaries in crimplene suits make speeches praising agricultural output.
This was the eve of Assumption Day. In Romania as in much of Southern Europe the Assumption of the Virgin is one of the most important days of the year. It is treated in the countryside as an unofficial holiday. The roads were full of processions, adults in full costume, and angelic girls in white as for a first Holy Communion.
People from all over the area and the two biggest processions converged on the Monastery of Moisei where Mass in the open lasted from early evening till midday. Until 1989 these processions were forbidden by the police and had to be held under cover of night but today every ex-Communist politician wants to be photographed on the Assumption at some famous monastery. Moisei was crowded with visitors and stalls selling refreshments. Long before the first procession was near the narrow road to the monastery was blocked and impassible by car.
Wooden churches are what Maramures is renowned for, with spires, steep roofs and wall paintings. I attended Mass the next morning in a Greek Catholic church in Iaud or rather in the graveyard amid hollyhocks and brightly painted crucifixes with most of the congregation. The women stood together in the front, the men together at the rear. Most of the women wore scarves and traditional blouses and skirts but there were a few in blue jeans and loose hair. Each year the numbers of the latter increase.
The priest at the close read out the names and size of the contributions made by parishioners to the cost of building the new church. (“€100 on the part of Mrs Ionela Ghica, €100 on the part of Vlad Dumitriu…”) Everywhere you go in Maramures new churches have been or are being built alongside the houses of incomers.  A few miles away an impressive Orthodox monastery complex has been built on the site of one suppressed in the eighteenth century.
Iaud is a village where half the population is Greek Catholic. The Greek Catholic rite resembles that of the Orthodox but the Greek Catholics, also known as ‘Uniates’, recognise the authority of Rome. Iaud boasts several fine wooden churches and a reputation for large families.  It seems that the inhabitants observe the Church’s teaching better than in richer parts of Europe. According to Vasile: ‘If you have three children here people think you’re impotent.’
Sighet, a pleasant Austro-Hungarian town a mile from the Ukrainian border, houses the infamous prison where after the Communist takeover the leading politicians and opinion-formers were incarcerated, tortured and in many cases killed. Today the prison is a well-designed museum that explains the Stalin era. When I visited the museum had plenty of customers. Children ran around noisily. I got a slight sense in the exercise yard of the horrors of the recent past, I stood in the little cell in which democrat Iuliu Maniu had died and I went out. I was pleased that President Ion Iliescu, a leading member of the Communist Party’s youth wing during the years when the prison was busiest, had not been to see it.
Vasile told me that the secret of a happy life is preserving tradition. ‘You have to change but you should keep the traditions.’ I thought of life in London where traditions have been dissolved by affluence, technology, pop culture and multiculturalism. In the Maramures past and present are seamless, the existence of God is assumed rather like the sun rising each morning, neighbours know everything about each other and no man is an island.
But the numbers of cars we saw everywhere with Italian driving licenses testify to the exodus of Moreseni to work abroad. In the locality where I was staying everyone went to Northern Italy, where the discipline of Italian life was irksome but the money was very good. In other parts of the Maramures I am told everyone goes to Spain. Maramures is beautiful but desperately poor and an economic impossibility. As Vasile said to me ‘When you say agriculture you say poverty.’ Europe no longer has room for subsistence farmers and even if people like Vasile would never swap their lives for anyone else’s, his three daughters will go to college and not return to live their mother’s way of life. Vasile has no regrets. ‘They must fulfill their destiny. I hope they will return here when they are old.’
© Paul Wood 2005


This was published in Vivid in October 2005, just after the bombings on the London underground by British Muslim terrorists.



Saturday, 3 November 2012

Edmund Burke on prejudice and Muslim governance


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What is Jacobinism? It is an attempt . . . to eradicate prejudice out of the minds of men, for the purpose of putting all power and authority into the hands of the persons capable of occasionally enlightening the minds of the people. For this purpose the Jacobins have resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion.


Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through past prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.


To make men love their country, their country ought to be lovable.

A man full of warm speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve taken together would be my standard of a statesman. Every thing else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.


To name a Mahomedan government is to name a government by law. It is a law enforced by stronger sanctions than any law that can bind a Christian sovereign. Their law is believed to be given by God; and it has the double sanction of law and of religion, with which the prince is no more authorized to dispense than any one else. And if any man will produce the Koran to me, and will but show me one text in it that authorises in any degree an arbitrary power in the government, I will confess that I have read that book, and been conversant in the affairs of Asia, in vain.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Monument to Romanian national poet, Mihai Eminescu, at Onesti

The Wisdom of Psychopaths and Monks





An interesting article in the current edition of Forbes Magazine, on the ability of psychopaths to read people. 



Ironically, both psychopaths and Tibetan monks detect deep emotions that are invisible to others. Psychopaths are much better at recognizing “those telltale signs in the gait of traumatized assault victims” notes The Wisdom of Psychopaths author, Kevin Dutton. 

Tibetan monks, steeped in meditative practice, are also especially adept at reading feelings that are hidden from the rest of us, Paul Ekman discovered. Ekman, is the preeminent expert on lying and on the six universally expressed emotions in the face — anger, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust and surprise. Scarily, psychopaths score especially high on the Hare Self-Report Scale of psychopathy in seeing those core expressions, especially the ones that make us most vulnerable, fear and sadness, according to Sabrina Demetrioff.

The explanation is the monks' deep meditation and the psychopaths' congenital lack of fear which makes them calm and unstressed.

Relaxation releases intuition, something I have learnt from experience and was once told by a high-performing psychopath. Another reason to practice meditation.


The purpose of the characteristic, long, penetrating stare of the psychopath has not been completely explained by psychologists but staring them out, while it may make you feel you have defeated them, may be what they want and dangerous. In Nietzsche's words:


When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares into you.

The stare is a means of asserting power but more importantly of reading people and returning the stare may in some way allow them to read you better and even, who knows, enter your mind. 

The psychopath inhabits a private melodrama in which he is the evil villain. Anyone who has known psychopaths well knows that, when they take off their masks, they seem completely inhuman. And there is evidence that they are in a true sense reptilian as Thomas Sheridan explains here. There is a persuasive theory that they have an evolutionary need to propagate themselves which is why male and female psychopaths alike typically have many children, starting young, whom they abandon or shamefully neglect. One woman psychopath I knew of delighting in donating her eggs for in vitro fertilisation and I am very sure she was not the only one: another argument against test tube babies.

Psychopaths have very good brains and they also have emotions, but they cannot love, except, in their own way, close members of their family, whom they consider extensions of themselves. Psychopaths therefore have no conscience, for conscience is a function of love, not reason. The psychopath's inability to love is the reason for his insatiable desire for power for this, unlike love, he does understand. As Carl Jung put it:


Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.


Psychopaths are not sadists - as one explained to me, its not about causing pain - its about power.  Sadists feel your pain - psychopaths do not. Psychopaths are only concerned about themselves. They are inhuman, sadists are humans.

For more information about how to learn the wisdom of psychopaths, a very useful wisdom indeed, by the way, for honest men as well as for knaves, here are 'Count' Victor Lustig's ten tips.




'Count' Lustig practices the psychopathic stare.

Lustig was an inter-war conman and is or was famous for selling the Eiffel Tower, as scrap metal. He also once scammed Al Capone of $5,000. Interestingly, he spoke five languages: psychopaths are often very good linguists, in my experience. They often have photographic memories but there are other reasons too why languages are attractive to them - every language is both a vehicle for deception and a mask.


Psychopaths delight in giving advice and especially in mentoring younger psychopaths. Lustig wrote the following list of rules for aspiring con-men. 
(Source: Fakes, Frauds & Other Malarkey)


  1. Never look bored.
  2. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
  3. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
  4. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest.
  5. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
  6. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
  7. Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.
  8. Never be untidy.
  9. Never get drunk.'



For more by me about psychopaths, please click here and here