Sunday 26 April 2015

Bucharest is changing

Davin Ellicson a brilliant young American photographer wrote this to me today, which is worth sharing.

I went to the night of the galleries last night and it was as if the Bucharest I knew is long gone. It was a shock. Bucharest is unrecognizable these days. Romanians have transformed themselves in every way. Since around 2011, Bucharest hit a new period. Romanians look different now, they carry themselves differently, they've traded BMWs for bikes. The city looks different with new streets, no wires, no dogs, bike lanes, all sorts of hip cafes and bars (even no smoking ones). Everyone has cameras and wears the latest fashions, many have the iPhone 6 and Apple laptops. There's an altogether different spirit about the place as if Bucharestians are finally reclaiming the city that Ceausescu took away from them for so long. At the route level it's about economics it seems to me. Money doesn't just buy new cars, it can buy a new found confidence. Many have traveled widely and globalization seems to finally be hitting up Bucharest, albeit in a sophisticated way. Bucharest is transforming itself in a way and at a speed you never witness in the West.

Calea Victoriei was also shut down for the light show and I had never seen so many Romanians in the streets except for the Rosia Montana protests. Romanians are taking back the urban environment that for so long was stolen from them. It's becoming their city again.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Freedom of speech in England

Freedom of speech means the right to offend. The freedom to say inoffensive things isn't freedom at all. Far too few people are being offended these days. 

As Kingsley Amis said: 

If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing.

And this is the motto for this blog. 

I think it's very sad that Labour in the British election have promised to bring in more restrictions on freedom of speech, this time to prevent 'islamophobia'. 

How recently England was a famously free country. Now Romania is much freer. You can say most things here, though if you are very unlucky you might get done for slander, which is a crime. People even smoke in restaurants here.

Why does Africa look away when Africans are drowned?

Why does Africa look away when Africans are drowned in the Mediterranean? Why do the Arab states look away when ISIS are killing Muslims Christians Yezidis? Are the Muslim countries less philanthropic than the (vaguely) Christian ones?

The United Nations predict 24 million will disembark from North Africa for Europe within the next ten years.This is not a humanitarian question or even a political one but an invasion.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Hillary won't win

Hillary Clinton won't win the US presidential election, simply because the dynamics of journalism require her to lose. Her winning would be such a boring story and America loves exciting serials: OJ; hanging chads; September 11; Lewinsky etc. Also she is too old, too physically unattractive, clearly an egoist and not really a politician, but a wife.

I read that the Taliban would have sold Osama to the USA in the 1990s and she told her husband that it would be wrong to give money to a country that oppressed women.

Saturday 18 April 2015

The Mar Mattai monastery five years later: Christianity is being extinguished in the Middle East

I was in the beautiful Assyrian monastery of Saint Matthew's (Mar Mattai in Syriac) in 2010, overlooking the plain of Nineveh. In those days Kurdish Iraq was the place along with Syria where Christians were safe.

Mar Mattai dates from 363 and was founded by a hermit fleeing from Julian the Apostate. Some parts of the nave of the church are very old indeed, though what you can see is late 19th century. The monk I spoke to there, of course, said that Saddam was a good friend to Christians. How could he not? The monk also told me that one of the departing Jews in the 1970s told him 'It is the turn of the Saturday people now but it will be the Sunday people later.' 

When we arrived there were three large coaches parked in the forecourt and I feared we were not the only foreign tourists, but I found that the coaches had brought pilgrims from Erbil. Now no pilgrims dare visit and only six monks are left. Jane Corbin has been there for the BBC and wrote this very depressing report. Her broadcast can be watched in the UK on the net.

Damn Mr Bush and Mr Blair. (Damn Mr. Cameron and Mr. Sarkozy too for overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi.) Swearing relieves my feelings but now we have to do what we can against IS. 

Exorcism and Christianity

Jesus was an itinerant exorcist. If you don't believe in exorcism, you don't believe in Christianity. Modern man prefers, understandably, to ignore this.

However, Pope Francis talks a lot about the devil and exorcisms are becoming more frequent, according to this interesting article in The Independent, by a writer I don't like, Peter Stanford.
It all comes down to our modern tendency to cherry pick the bits of Christianity that we like. Thumbs up to quoting Jesus, in the gospels, when he calls for a fairer, more loving society, but close your eyes when, in exorcist mode, he drives out evil spirits from the sick and afflicted. One is deemed real, the other, at best, symbolic. Yet for centuries the Devil was anything but a symbol. Priests would routinely deal with all manner of problems in their congregations by pronouncing the rite of exorcism, summoning out the terrifying reality of the Devil, confronting him with the crucifix, and applying holy water, salt and clouds of incense lavishly.
Modern man, and this includes bishops, likes Jesus when, in the gospels, he calls for a fairer society, but did he call for a fairer society? Not fairer in the sense modern politicians understand. 

Jesus also speaks often of hell and damnation. In the words of Henri De Montherlant,
Many are called but few are chosen, but devout Christians think this is the rhetoric of Jesus Christ.

Friday 17 April 2015

Five wonderful quotations

"Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits."
Robert Louis Stevenson

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back—
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Begin it now."

“The Church says: the body is a sin.
Science says: the body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The Body says: I am a fiesta.”
Eduardo Galeano, who has died.

"In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves... self-discipline with all of them came first." 

Harry S.Truman

“Only one offence is now vigorously punished,—an accurate observance of our fathers’ traditions."
St. Basil on the Arian schism

Sunday 5 April 2015

Genius and childhood

"Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed." 

Charles Baudelaire

"Creativity represents a miraculous coming together of the uninhibited energy of the child with its apparent opposite and enemy, the sense of order imposed on the disciplined adult intelligence."
Norman Podhoretz

"Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life." G.K. Chesterton

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." 
Pablo Picasso

"One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste." 
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"A little boy sees and hears birds with delight.

Then his “good father” comes along and feels he should “share” the experience and help his son “develop.” He says: “That’s a jay, and this is a sparrow.”

The moment the little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing. He has to see and hear them the way that his father wants him to.

Father has good reasons on his side, since few people can afford to go through life listening to the birds sing, and the sooner the little boy starts his “education” the better. Maybe he will be an ornithologist when he grows up.

A few people, however, can still see and hear in the old way. But most of the members of the human race have lost the capacity to be painters, poets, or musicians, and are not left the option of seeing and hearing directly even if they can afford to; they must get it secondhand.

The recovery of this ability is called “awareness.”

Eric Berne

Time management advice by Jung

If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. … you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing. 
Carl Jung

Friday 3 April 2015

Who are the best prose writers in English?

A friend of mine and I have just exchanged these mails. He wrote first.

Sat at home, sombre, listening to St Matthew's Passion. Thought some more about the best prose writers I can think of. 

Amis - Kingsley and Martin. Martin brilliant, complex, sometimes convoluted. Kingsley polished. 
Waugh - often brilliant and economical writing. 
Hitchens - very consistent, punchy, funny. His brother also good. 
Rana Dasgupta - superb long form journalist, wrote a brilliant essay on the ills of modern Delhi 
Jonathan Sumption - his books on 100 years war are exquisite although he sometimes meticulous to the point of dull. 
Russell Brand - ignore his Revolution twaddle. His autobiography is one of the funniest books I've read and he sets the scenes of his misdemeanours superbly. 
Kenneth Tynan - brilliant, funny, uninhibited.

My reply:

I forget it's Holy Week. Of course I should have listened to the Bach Passions. It doesn’t help that everyone here thinks Easter is in ten days’ time.

I would rate Jeremy Taylor very high but I brought Holy Living with me when I came here in 1998 and only dipped into it. The King James Bible is better if that counts. Robert Burton is fun.  I never quite went loopy about Sir Thomas Browne but he is good - all the early 17th century writers wrote great prose. And I love of course John Aubrey's unfinished Brief Lives that had he finished it would have lost much of its charm.

I must read Coleridge's prose. I am atrociously badly read in some areas. But without ANY doubt my favourite prose writer is Macaulay. I haven’t read Ruskin. Not much Newman or Carlyle. 

Of the 20th century I love Harold Nicolson’s diary, my favourite diarist (along with Macaulay). Sybille Bedford is wonderful. I like Belloc’s essays and The Path to Rome though not his novels. I like Eliot’s prose better than his poetry, much better. Churchill was very good. I also love William Dalrymple. Yes, I love Tynan very much. And Hitchens wrote great polemic – although I only read a 2 or 3 of his pieces.  This in particular sticks in my mind as great prose. 

I love Macaulay’s letters enormously, my favourite letter writer. Also Lady
Diana Cooper's letters, in her autobiographies and in Philip Ziegler's biography. I love The Faber Book of Diaries. Not a fan of Pepys unlike my beloved Dad, but Pepys is more fun than Evelyn.

My favourite sentence in English is by Landor. Quoted in '84, Charing Cross Rd', that enchanting play, then book and then film.

There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave : there are no voices, O Rhodope ! that are not soon mute, however tuneful : there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.
Oh and I almost forgot perhaps the best prose writer of the 20th century was Raymond Chandler. I love Evelyn Waugh very much and rate him higher than Graham Greene but as a prose stylist I prefer Graham Greene. Greene's book reviews are wonderfully written as are Philip Larkin's.

Here is the best thing Macaulay ever wrote.
There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

I blogged about the best opening lines of books here but actually I think the opening lines of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul might be best of all. 
Doctor Eduardo Plarr stood in the small port on the Paraná, among the rails and yellow cranes, watching where a horizontal plume of smoke stretched over the Chaco. It lay between the red bars of sunset like a stripe on a national flag. Doctor Plarr found himself alone at that hour except for the one sailor who was on guard outside the maritime building. It was an evening which, by some mysterious combination of failing light and the smell of an unrecognized plant, brings back to some men the sense of childhood and of future hope and to others the sense of something which has been lost and nearly forgotten.