Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Disjointed thoughts on prolific writers, prolific facial hair, pubic hair, and so on

George Saintsbury 

Here is an interesting list of 'the top ten literary beards ranked in order of increasing awesomeness'. A shame though that Edward Lear is missing.
Edward Lear

Not only did he have a prolific beard but he penned the most famous poem about a beard.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Lunch with a Syrian refugee

Until a year or so ago I had never seen a  woman in Bucharest wearing a Muslim headscarf. The head-scarves Romanian peasant women wear are different. Now I see Muslim women and girls almost every day. I started a conversation with two recently and they said they were Syrian refugees staying with their uncle. I  suspect Bucharest is full of Syrians but I can find no  numbers on the internet.

It is a whole year exactly since I last met my Syrian Christian friend, though I had intended to see him much more often. He is a very nice man but I have a self-interested motive, to find out what is really going on in Syria from someone whom I trust and who is a Christian, meaning he is therefore neutral between Sunni, Shia and Alawi.

I invited him to lunch with me but he with characteristic Arab hospitality insisted on inviting me. We ate at Piccolo Mondo, the most famous of Bucharest's Arab restaurants. I of course pumped him.

He is a very discreet man who has a business in Syria and avoids commenting on what is happening there in public. This is why I am not giving his name. A year ago he told me he expected to be back in Damascus in a month, after the Government had been overthrown and peace restored. I knew he would be here for years but said nothing. A year before that, I remember him telling me that he and the other Christians would never leave their country but now I feel he is thinking of spending is life in Bucharest, at least for many years while his children are educated. Two million Syrians he says have left Syria. That's a lot out of twenty-two million and, naturally, they are disproportionately the well-educated and intelligent ones.

Last year he told me all the Christians and almost all the Sunnis wanted the regime to go and even half the Alawis agreed. This time, he talked about the horrors of the war and has even less liking for the regime which has perpetrated so many of them but, in the end, he said quietly that he prefers that the regime wins. The rebels are not organised and if they win or share power chaos will be the result. Rebels are beginning to fight each other and some are coming over to the government side. The best hope, he says, is that the regime remains but reforms itself and a peace is made. I cannot persuade him to say that Christians in general are now on the side of the regime. He is certain that he does not want the UK and France to intervene.

His judgement is, as it happens, exactly the same as the conclusion I had reached, but until I spoke to him I had kept my opinion to myself, waiting to hear what he thought. 

Why did the regime not fall last summer? Because Iran and Hezbollah intervened to support the government.

He also thinks it possible that the fighting in Syria may lead to a redrawing of national boundaries. It is not difficult to imagine the artificial boundaries imposed by Britain and France to create Iraq, Syria and Lebanon being torn up.

He says what he said last year that until the unrest started Shia, Sunni, Alawi and Christian had no problems. I hear many Bosnians tell me the same thing in 1996 immediately after the war ended and I believe him. He emphases now as he did when we first met in Syria long ago that he has very many close Muslim friends and most of the people in his class at school were Muslims. Nevertheless though he likes and admires Muslims, whom he think make good businessmen, he would not invite one into his house '
because their way of thinking is too different'.  Would his unveiled wife wearing lipstick be the reason? Syrian Muslims have told me that if I were invited to their houses their wives would be unveiled. That would only be a small part of the differences my friend says, without enumerating others.

If I were to say that I had many close Muslim or Jewish or black friends but would not let them in my house this would not sound very friendly of me, but in the Middle East, as in Romania, people do not often invite others to their house but entertain in restaurants instead. In addition, in the Middle East men socialise among themselves and Muslims never seem to take their wives out to restaurants.

As I am an imperialist it pleased me to hear him say, without any prompting, how much Syria owed to the French who created the country and ruled it for twenty-five years. His school was built by the French,  the educational system was created by them and they founded hospitals and did other fine things. When the regime complained about French colonial rule this stands in ironic contrast with the way the country was ruled after independence.

It occurs to me as I write this that Ba'athism, founded by a Syrian Christian, in its nationalism, socialism and secularism owes quite a lot to the French, though the former British mandate, Iraq, was also ruled by the Ba'ath. Iraq was ruled brutally and wickedly by Saddam and the Ba'ath, but in Iraq what succeeded the Ba'ath was much worse and so it would be, I think, in Syria.

The Balkans and the Christian Middle East belong to the same cultural space. Syrian Christians, someone in Athens told me recently, like emigrating to Greece more than any other countries, because there they feel most at home. Romania also has many things in common with Christian Syria, including the same Orthodox religion. It will probably also have a sizeable Muslim minority as a result of the refugees. I was told recently that in addition to Syrians there are sizeable numbers of Muslim immigrants entering Romania from other countries and some Romanians have converted to Islam. Until recently Romania had 20,000 Muslims, in the Dobrudgea, the only part of Romania where before 1878 they were allowed to settle, but this figure is out of date.

I believe my friend completely when he says he is not opposed to Muslims but he tells me with utter conviction that I should warn people about the danger of Muslim immigration into Europe. Europe he believes and fears will have a Muslim majority in the foreseeable future. 

Syrian Christians do not understand why European governments are so easy-going and laissez-faire with Muslims and fear that the Muslims will quickly out-breed their Christian hosts. Islam, so Syrian Christians think, is an inherently intolerant and aggressive religion. 

It all sounded like the Catholic Bishop of Zanzibar telling me last year that Westerners should see how Muslims behave where they are the majority.

Friday, 26 July 2013

An Englishman in England might go to prison for calling an MP a coward

This story deserves as much coverage as possible.

Think about it. A man called Alex Cline is being prosecuted simply for calling an MP a coward.

I am not blaming the MP whose complaint led to this grotesque prosecution, though I hope even his party faithful refuse in disgust to vote for him at the next election. No, he did not decide that Mr. Cline should be prosecuted. In any case, I am grateful for this prosecution - because we now know how authoritarian English law has become. Except only readers of the Brighton and Hove local press do. The news may have travelled as far

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The world’s ten most beautiful buildings

Taj Mahal

Lonely Planet is always spamming me with things - of course I could unsubscribe but I like being reminded of travel possibilities when I am supposed to be working. As Tony Hawks put it 
'I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine.'

I rarely open them as I consider Lonely Planet my sworn foe and the foe of civilisation (along with Al Qaeda, feminism and out of town shopping centres) but I did look at this list of the world's most beautiful buildings.

First the boast, which is what travel is now all about. Which ones have I seen? Four: the Aya Sofia, the Winter Palace; the Taj Mahal and Craque des Chevaliers.

I longed to see the Sagrada Familia from childhood but when I spent 24 hours in Barcelona my childhood training, looking round churches with my father on holiday, was too strong. I did not really have time for both and Barcelona Cathedral, being mediaeval, had to have priority I felt. A mistake, though Barcelona Cathedral is quite wonderful. Did I glimpse the Sagrada Familia from a bus or train? I think yes, for a moment.

I stayed three nights in a hotel a very short distance from the Winter Palace but never entered. A wise Russian woman (that makes her sound like a witch but she was nothing of the sort) whom I made friends with advised me that the Hermitage required an entire day and as I had only three in St Petersburg I should devote them all to St Petersburg. She was right.

Winter Palace

T.E. Laurence visited Craque des Chevaliers about twenty times (he also left the Hotel Baron in Aleppo, where I also stayed, without paying his bill). Craque des Chevaliers is simply astonishingly beautiful. Though I used to love castles so much as a young boy, my adult taste is for churches, but Craque des Chevaliers is incomparable. Do its friends shorten its name to Craque? It seems a gross familiarity for such a noble structure.

Aya Sofya

When I first visited it the Aya Sofia reminded me of a bus station, as the aunt says it does in Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt. Travels with my Aunt was written in the early 60s, when Istanbul seemed to the meek retired bank manager nephew and to almost all Greene's readers an impossibly exotic place. An era long before Lonely Planet readers settled on every old city like vultures on carrion. I thought the Blue Mosque amply achieved its aim of being more beautiful. I am no longer so sure and in any case think the Aya Sofia very beautiful or at least thinks its icons and interiors very beautiful, which is not quite the same thing.

Which would my ten be?

The Taj Mahal. I suppose the most beautiful building I ever saw. I have almost forgotten its association with Diana, Princess of Wales but for some reason I do not remember it very well. I know it was as beautiful as it looks in pictures, which means the most beautiful thing on earth, women excepted.

The Royal Maritime College, Greenwich, is like a chord of music. It pips Trinity College, Cambridge Great Court. (Why did I let my headmaster talk me out of applying to Trinity?Apart from the Wren architecture, Dryden and Macaulay were two of my great heroes, not to mention Bentley, Wordsworth and Byron. And in my year, the first where women were admitted, I had two girls I thought stupendous, both now TV stars, Vanessa Feltz and Daisy Goodwin.) I might give the Royal Maritime College second place.

Aachen Cathedral

St. Peter's in Rome

The Blue Mosque

St. Mark's in Venice

The Lloyd's Building, London

Where else? I have three places left.

English churches come to my mind like Rochester Cathedral, Waltham Abbey or Wells Cathedral or....  Clare College, Cambridge? One of the wonderful churches in Georgia? The Stavropoleos Church in Bucharest is no slouch and probably beats even the gorgeous monasteries of Armenia. If paintings rather then architecture is our criterion then SuceviĆŁa monastery in the Bucovina certainly deserves a place. The Houses of Parliament, a.k.a. the Palace of Westminster, where I began my career and adult life? For Barry's structure and Pugin's interior design of the House of Lords I think possibly yes. But St James's Palace is more beautiful....

I have decided. The last three places go to:

The Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest

Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey (a surprise finisher which came up suddenly from behind) Perhaps I chose it because I was 11 when I was there and could see beauty much more easily than I can now.

St. Mary's Church, in the market square in Cracow.

And Trinity College Great Court. Even though it fills me with jealousy and regrets that I went to Queens's, which had a 1970s dining hall. Eleven.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

A long weekend in Kadakoy = Chalcedon

I spent a wonderful long weekend in Istanbul, which I do not quite have the courage to call Constantinople, even though an  other worldly parson friend encourages me to do so. Actually I was not in Istanbul but in Kadakoy, on the Asian side, which is very easy to get to from the Gokcem airport, where the budget airline Pegasus flies to. Pegasus is a delight among budget airlines, flying at normal times from Bucharest and using spacious planes. 

And Kadakoy is Chalcedon, where the Council of Chalcedon met! I could google to remind myself what that famous and great ecumenical council decided, but the truth is I do not any longer know and I leave you to  find out. Kadakoy, unlike the tourist museum Sultanhamit, where no Istanbulians venture, is the real Istanbul. More so also than the charming Beyoglu, where the restaurants are, which is the much more charming, Turkish-elegant equivalent of Covent Garden. Kadikoy is not plant for the tourist industry. Relaxingly, it has no sights. It just is and is a busy little port on the Bosporus, full of cheap hotels. The Kadikoy bazaar, which twenty years ago was just shops and stalls, is now home to some restaurants too and they specialise, of course, in freshly caught fish.


So my friend Tufan told me after inviting me to meet him in an excellent one, called Nimet, where we sat drinking much raki (I have a childish delight in watching it turn white when water is added), eating delicious fish and discussing God and the events in Taksim Square. 

My friend is an old Communist (Turkey much more even than Greece abounds in them and they are sound anti-Islamists) who feels that thanks to the events in Taksim bliss is it in this morn to be alive, even if he is not young enough for it to be very heaven. He spends every evening there and gives advice to the kids on what to do. He it was who said having gathered a huge crowd they had to do something and persuaded them to march across the Bosporus bridge and confront the police. I felt sorry for my friend that his gammy leg stopped him leading the procession to its denouement. He is the stuff of which charismatic revolutionary leaders are made but is far too decent and good to last long in a real Bolshevik regime.

Kadakoy market has a buzz at night. There seemed no foreigners but probably there were some - foreigners are everywhere these days. People played good street music. A girl, her eyes shining with idealism, came round singing an unmelodious song about the demonstrations in Taksim. Tufan gave her money but I think on political not musical grounds. It was late and dusk was gathering at the close of a long hot summer day. Turkey feels modern but it has a lot of texture. Romania is much less modern but is slightly thinner.

Kadikoy is where the ferries leave for the Spice Market on the European side, one of the areas of maximum interest to visitors, so it is a great place to stay to see Istanbul. The drawback of Kadikoy is the length of time it takes by road to cross the bridge. Getting to Edirne for the oil wrestling festival took me five hours each way as opposed to three hours when i went from Taksim. Istanbul my friend said had a population of two million when he was a boy. Now it is twelve of thirteen, perhaps fifteen million. This is what would happen to all the big cities of Europe were there no planning restrictions and this is why property prices rose so high around the world and then became so disastrous a bubble. The huge drift of Anatolian peasants to Istanbul is a small part of a great exodus of people from the poor world towards richer places, especially Western Europe, which will transform bourgeois Europe.

Dinner with two old friends in Nimet again and breakfasting with some more Turkish friends, still in Kadakoy. At breakfast I met a Turkish political scientist with whom I discussed Erogan and Enver Pasha. Like so many Turks I have known she had just made her first visit to Greece and loved it. Greeks I know have made the same discovery in reverse and when I was in Athens recently I was told a Turkish production - mirabile dictu - was the most popular soap opera. I said that Greeks and Turks had so much in common and the political scientist said it's a shame that Greece and Turkey did not remain one loosely federated country. I warmly agreed and was pleased to hear a Turk say so. And had they held onto the Arab lands they would have had all the oil and there would be no Middle Eastern problem.

Had Turkey and Greece remained one country perhaps Constantinople would have continued to have a Christian majority, as it did in 1914, Adrianople continued to have roughly equal numbers of Turks, Greeks and Bulgarians and Salonica remained a leading centre for Sephardic Jews. I feel that at least Constantinople, Salonica, Smyrna and Jerusalem should have been made international cities or independent city states, but the spirit of the times was strongly in favour of nation states. I wonder if Mr. Woodrow Wilson is in hell.

Now these cities, with the partial exception of Jerusalem, have been ethnically cleansed and are dull reminders of their vibrant pasts. Formerly homogeneous cities in Western Europe, by contrast, have become full of many races, even as their respective host cultures have become semi-American.

By a piece of luck, as I walked back to my hotel to pack and leave, I stumbled on Mass in an Armenian church. I counted about forty people in the congregation. There are, I doscoverd, somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 Armenians in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, though no-one seems very sure. There are others who have converted to Islam and become Turks or Kurds or have pretended to have done so (the so-called crypto-Armenians).In 1914 there were up to two million. What happened to them is not well documented at all but it seems that most were killed and the rest fled or shed their national identity. As Adolf Hitler is said to have said (though this has been questioned) 'Who now remembers the Armenians?'

I have decided after some hesitation in the past that, like many of my friends, I do love Istanbul, even though it is a pale shadow of the real Constantinople, built of wood, full of ghosts, where Muslims were a minority. The real Constantinople lasted until property developers ruined the place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Until the inter-ethnic riots in 1955 there were still plenty of Greeks too.

Istanbul is wonderful, a bright, happy place, very modern despite its monuments, but, coming back, I definitely prefer Bucharest. Prefer it for being much smaller and much more old fashioned, more shadowed, more provincial, much less globalised too. For being a gossipy 19th century village. Odd to think that fifty years ago both cities had populations of two million. Now Istanbul is a mega-city like Delhi or Bombay and has at least six times more people, housed in 
seemingly well constructed tower blocks built by housing cooperatives. These cut a very favourable contrast with Bucharest's jerry-built blocks of flats. If I lived in one I should much prefer to live in Istanbul. For a weekend or a holiday it is delectable.