Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Algarve chimneys, a specialty on the way to extinction

View of Albufeira
Back from a week in the Algarve, at Albufeira.  A pleasant holiday beside a calm Atlantic in warm sunny weather, never out of shorts, and no need of a sweater even in the evenings.  The only drawback was most of the voices you hear are English and the entire town which was once a fishing village consists of restaurants and bars and shops selling beach umbrellas, and some quite nice pottery.  If you were local it would depress you to behold a hillside quite covered in tourist apartment blocks, and you might wonder what the planning department has been doing. Though since all this is done for my benefit, it's hardly my place to complain.  It is however Abel’s place.  Abel is a new friend I've made in Albufeira and along with a couple of thousand others he’s part of a Facebook group devoted to preserving the distinctive Algarve chimneys, which were first drawn to my attention by a tourist guide last year.  Here are some:-

Photos by João Lelo from the Facebook page
Chaminés Algarvias – Uma Espécie em Vias de Extinção
(Algarve chimneys, a specialty on the way to extinction)
I was astonished to learn that many instances of these chimneys are even now being demolished, and that some of those whose photos I have seen, actually no longer exist. Before I left, I sent a message to the Director of Turismo do Algarve, expressing my dismay and concluding “Surely something should be done?”  There seems little confidence in the local authorities however. A Facebook group member posted (in English) “A very well meant initiative, but probably going to the wrong address. Authorities are the last to take appropriate measures. It's up to every single Portuguese to be aware of their beautiful heritage. But not even most of the architects have the right feeling for it. This group is a good approach to reach that goal!”

By the way for a bit more on the history of the chimneys and of Muslim-Christian relations in Portugal, you can read “Of mosques and chimneys in the Algarve”, a blog I wrote last year.

A legend, but is it history?

I have a little more history for you.  According to the historian A R Disney (that really is his name) Christian monasteries and nunneries continued to function under Muslim rule in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, and he cites two centres of Christian pilgrimage in the Algarve which were respected by the Muslim authorities.  In search of one of them, a sanctuary of the Virgin Mary, I took the bus to Faro, and was in luck, for prominently displayed in the small municipal museum is a modern tapestry telling the legend of Santa Maria de Faro.  During the years of Muslim rule, Muslims and Christians quarrelled over an image of the Virgin, which for the sake of a quiet life the Christians were obliged to ditch in the harbour. No sooner was the deed done however, than to the distress of the local fishermen all fish disappeared from the sea. Realising their mistake, the Muslims dredged the image up and restored it to its rightful place, whereupon the fishermens’ nets were filled more bounteously than ever before.  This is numbered amongst the miracles of the Virgin. Incidentally, Mary is venerated in Islam, indeed according to Wikipedia is mentioned more times in the Koran than in the New Testament. 

Tapestry in Faro municipal museum. The panels show: a fight, throwing the statue into the sea, empty fishing nets, pulling the statue out of the sea, statue restored on the wall, full fishing nets
I asked the curator if there was any more than this legend, and showed him the passage in Disney's book, A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire. He was familiar with the book but told me no, other than the legend, there was no evidence for these events.  Hmm ...  history books are full of facts and you can hardly have history without them; but the one and only fact that I've actually checked for myself seems to have evaporated before my eyes.

If I'm back next year I'll dig some more. And I hope I shall be, because I missed out on the museum of dried fruit in Loulé.  A circumstance which when mentioned occasions unaccountable hilarity, but I intend to prove the scoffers wrong. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Did Magna Carta die in vain?

There are few specific facts that I positively remember learning at school. I thought there were three, but right now I can recall only two, the first of which is the existence of the Indo-European family of languages. I was so enthralled by what I found on this topic in the school library's Encyclopedia Britannica that I read the whole article standing up with the volume resting on a shelf. The other fact came from our history teacher Mr Bruin, and I can visualise the classroom where he told us this. The window was on the left.  He said Magna Carta was unknown till discovered by Parliamentary lawyers in the 1620’s, a fact seemingly corroborated when we studied Shakespeare’s play of King John, in which Magna Carta doesn't even rate a mention.

From the British Library Magna Carta exhibition. An early Chartist poster from 1839. The Chartists chose their name to evoke an echo of Magna Carta
Actually I discovered from the British Library Magna Carta exhibition last week that the case is less clear-cut than I thought, but before I forget may I mention that the exhibition finishes on 1st September and if you’ve not been and have the opportunity to do so, I suggest you look lively and book here

I also suggest you put an alarm on your phone to remind you of your transport home.  I thought I had been in the exhibition a mere couple of hours or so, till my watch told me I had been there four hours, and I had to dash for my train back to Derby - from St Pancras Station thankfully, which is next door.

As to Shakespeare not mentioning Magna Carta a variety of
sometimes incompatible reasons are advanced for this. The simplest, that he just hadn’t heard of it, is probably not the case. Though it had not yet become an icon of popular culture, Magna Carta was part of the law, and was first printed in 1508. So what Mr Bruin told us, that Magna Carta was unknown before the 17th century, wasn’t quite right, and I'll return to this soon.  But although Magna Carta was enrolled in the statute book, it was the 1225 version (hold that thought, it's crucial) and not the 1215 version, so maybe Shakespeare just didn't associate Magna Carta with King John.  Or there again, maybe Shakespeare was well aware of the King John connection, but even more aware that his play might be banned if it depicted a successful rebellion against a monarch, as this was the sort of thing Queen Elizabeth and her secret police were awfully touchy about.  Maybe the truth is that to Shakespeare and his audience Magna Carta had not yet become a big thing in English history.  

Enthusiasm for a document they had not read

No to ‘Magna Carta Day’.  An internal civil service memo from 1947
My favourite exhibit? A 1947 internal civil service memo, denouncing a proposed ‘Magna Carta Day’.  An idea had been floated to declare 15th June a public holiday in the British Empire and the United States. These were the early days of the Cold War, and ‘Magna Carta Day’ was intended to emphasise Anglo-American co-operation and to champion the document as a symbol of Western liberty. Some British civil servants opposed the scheme though, fearing that the celebration of civil liberties might provoke opposition to British imperial rule. A memo from one K. W. Blaxter, Assistant Secretary in the Colonial Office, was on display.  He dismissed the plan thus:

In some Colonies where ill-disposed politicians are ever on the lookout for opportunities to misrepresent our good intentions, its celebration might well cause embarrassment and in general there is a danger that the Colonial peoples might be led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document which they had not read but which they presumed to contain guarantees of every so-called ‘right’ they might be interested at that moment in claiming.

Revolutionary yes or no?
Was Magna Carta a revolutionary document? Most historians say no, it was in line with coronation oaths made by previous English kings and with contemporary charters in Europe. Like the Statute of Pamiers, 1212, on display, a document the English barons will have known about.  So Magna Carta was part of conventional medieval political theory, the story goes.  This argument is set out in a lecture which is well worth reading by Lord Sumption, a leading British judge. He dispells the myth of Magna Carta as the original foundation of democracy. It was a treaty bound by its own context and the tenets of feudal law.

A republic like Venice

But the conservative historian David Starkey dissents. He claims Magna Carta was revolutionary. This is by virtue of clause 61, the security clause as historians call it.  Clause 61 gave the barons the right to levy distraint if the king infringed the charter, seizing the king’s assets like a debtor or malefactor

Starkey claims that the original 1215 Magna Carta (which only lasted 12 weeks) would have made England an aristocratic republic like Venice, with power in the hands of a senate of 25 barons.  It's in his book Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter which I fear I won't get round to reading.  Magna Carta, he claims, is being presented as safe, domesticated, comforting, in this centenary year, but the earliest account of it by a Scottish observer is quite otherwise: ‘A new state of things began in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wished to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king.’

Margaret Thatcher is frequently ridiculed for claiming in her 1988 “Bruges Speech” that Magna Carta was the beginning of parliamentary democracy.  I wonder if this is quite fair.  Her actual words were “We in Britain are rightly proud of the way in which, since Magna Carta in the year 1215, we have pioneered and developed representative institutions to stand as bastions of freedom”.  Now I daresay that like the colonial peoples slighted by the unhappy Blaxter, she was led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document she had not read.  Yet so far as I can tell the 1215 charter did envisage a sort of parliament.  It established a council of the realm which had to approve taxation. That’s a bit like a parliament, is it not?  To be sure, only a House of Lords, but still a beginning. 

The charter was reissued in 1225 and in this form was later enrolled in the statute book. But the 1225 version had no committee of barons overseeing the king, and no common council of the realm to approve taxation. So no enforcement mechanism. It was completely emasculated. 

More questions

How autocratic were the Angiven kings? This is a question there seems to be divergent views on amongst historians.  It's important for this reason, that if they were normally forced by circumstances to act consensually, then Magna Carta was nothing out of the ordinary for its time. The more autocratic, the more significant Magna Carta becomes.

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) invented our idea of Magna Carta
Another question.  In what sense was Magna Carta “rediscovered” in the early 17th century?  My history teacher Mr Bruin isn't the only one to use this term, it was used by an historian in the exhibition.  But my mental image of Sir Edward Coke (pronounced Cook by the way) shouting Eureka when he discovering Magna Carta mouldering in an archive, is too literal.  Magna Carta the document was already known. It was the Magna Carta the idea that Coke rediscovered. Or invented perhaps. Coke it seems is single handedly responsible for putting Magna Carta on the banners of the parliamentary army in the English civil war.

And is likewise responsible for the US Supreme Court regularly citing Magna Carta in its judgments.  I'm still not clear though quite what American judges are doing when they cite Magna Carta. So far as I can tell it has no explicit standing in US law, how could it?  Yet the framers of the constitution and before that the Declaration of Independence had Magna Carta – Coke’s Magna Carta – very much in mind.  There was a video of the US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Gerald Breyer, but sadly it's not included in the videos on the website.  Tony Hancock "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, did she die in vain?", is also sadly missing. If you have time for just one video I recommend Joshua Rozenburg.

I've just remembered the third fact I learnt at school, that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet. This I got from what was still in those days called a Divinity lesson by the school chaplain, a forward thinking chap who taught us what I now know to be comparative religion.  I remember the classroom, and I can see the window, it was on the right hand side.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

He and Me, or, How we played Kick the Can

Kicking the can down the road is a cliché of political journalism that bugs me. It cropped up in a Guardian editorial in connection with Greece, as I mentioned last time. But on this occasion no blame attaches to The Guardian because they acknowledged it as someone else’s cliché.  No such excuse however on 27 September 2013:-

Here “kicking the can down the road” appears not only within the article but dear oh dear, in the headline.  And dear oh dear, not just any old headline, but an editorial.

And here's a particularly lame instance in the Irish Examiner last year.  It's in an op-ed piece which finishes:-

“Scandal has been kicked down the road, where, history warns, it will rear its head again.  But with a bit of luck for Shatter and Callinan, that will be on somebody else’s watch.”  Two sentences groaning under the weight of three clichés. 

I'll spare you further examples. It's a metaphor that appears to have no precise referent. Or maybe there really is a kicking the can down the road game that all other kids played, and I didn't, due to my privileged upbringing? If so then I withdraw that part of the objection.  (Note: idly kicking a can down a road doesn't count; it has to be a purposeful game.)

Kick The Can

At my school we did have a game called Kick The Can and very satisfying it was too. No road was involved - we played it in a clearing in the woods at one side of which a steep bank fell away to a pond on which (I think) moorhens swam. The can was a large upside-down floor polish tin. One boy would be “He”, while the rest of us ran to hide behind trees. The He's task was to catch sight of one of us. Suppose he spied me he would shout “one two three Household” and then I was caught, and had to stand at the edge of the clearing. When we were all caught, the He had won the game.

Here I am running up behind the He to kick the can and release three boys who have been caught. However, my run is likely to be in vain, because his foot is on the can.
But there was a catch. While shouting “one two three Household”, the He had to have his foot on the can, else it didn't count. If another boy ran from behind a tree and succeeded in kicking the can while the He’s foot wasn’t on it, then all those who had been caught were released, and the He had to run to retrieve the can, giving us all time to hide again. Or the He was deposed, and the can kicker became the new He. Of course the He could avoid all this inconvenience by the simple contrivance of staying put in the middle of the clearing with his foot placed firmly on the can. But this defensive tactic entailed disadvantages. Firstly, the He would be unlikely to discover any of us who were hiding. To have a good chance of this, it was necessary to go on patrol amongst the trees. The other disadvantage was the rest of us from our hiding places would taunt him with a chant of “Can Sticker! Can Sticker!”

It was a brilliant game.

By the way, although I've depicted us all in Billy Bunterish school caps, these were worn only on Sundays, not for kick the can. The caps were similar in style to the one shown but they were pink, indeed Leander pink according to one of my informants. It was a prep school in Sussex called Boarzell that I attended from 1956 to 1961, age 7 to 12. Finally were my illustration accurate, I feel the can would have frequently ended up in the pond. But as I don't recall this happening, at least not often, maybe the pond wasn’t as close as I remember it.  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Greece: the bell tolls for whom?

Best tweet: The European Union has lost, Europe has won
Yanis Varoufakis, who today surprised us all by resigning as finance minister after the Greek referendum, liked to quote John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  This was his way of calling for European solidarity, and asserting that a community is judged by how it treats its weakest members.  Though Varoufakis wasn’t really quoting John Donne, he was quoting Ernest Hemingway, who put "No man is an island" on the frontispiece of his 1940 novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, thereby catapulting it into the top 100 quotes in the English language. 

The frontispiece of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls
The passage is actually buried deep within one of Donne's rather dull meditations (Meditation XVII, 1624) and I imagine it's Hemingway we have to thank for excavating it from there. Or did someone else quote it before him?

Yanis Varoufakis, it seems, is fond of quoting English poets.  Susanne Moore writes in today’s Guardian of how she heard him on the radio saying that his fellow Greeks chose, “to quote your own Dylan Thomas, to stop going gently into the night and to rage against the dying of the light”.

A Greek woman thanks Yanis Varoufakis for standing up to the EU
My final linguistic thought arising out of the news from Greece, is prompted by today’s Guardian editorial. It says that kicking the can down the road has been the cliché of choice to describe the slow euro crisis that has steadily strangled the life out of the Greek economy; but yesterday Europe ran out of road when the Greek people said no to continuing to engage with their creditors on the same suffocating terms. I want to say something about the kicking the can down the road, and I'll do so soon. It takes me back to a brilliant game we played at school.  And by the way Donne might have written some dull meditations but he wrote some marvellous poems, sometime I must record one for you.

Humph. It occurs to me there's not been a lot of politics in this blog so I'll leave you with Varoufakis's resignation statement. He says the referendum of 5 July will stay in history as a unique moment when a small European nation rose up against debt bondage. And “I wear the creditors' loathing with pride”. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Love thy neighbour? Perish the thought!

Just another short comment on the Irish gay marriage referendum.  The day afterwards a radio discussion programme dwelt on the number of older people, and presumably older Catholics, who voted Yes. A studio guest told that when she arrived at the polling station several people were leaving, some wearing stern expressions (and she assumed these to be the no voters) and others chatting and laughing (these she assumed to be the yes voters).  Two ladies in their sixties were chuckling that “they had done their good deed”.

Which brings to me the letters page of The Irish Catholic.  Columnists and readers of this paper continue to agonise over the gay marriage vote, and in the current edition, the letter of the week, printed under the heading "Many Catholics are out of touch with Church teaching" makes interesting reading.

Dr Janina Lyons of Dublin 15 mourns the result of the same-sex marriage referendum and observes that of those who voted Yes, surely a number were older Mass-going Catholics. So why did they vote yes? Dr Lyons believes that many did so because they thought it was a kind and loving thing to do for their gay family members and friends, and they were persuaded by the slogan “Equality and Love”.

This tells us, she goes on, that there is great confusion in the Catholic Church about Christ’s teaching.  Many Catholics no longer know that same-sex relations are wrong. However much we love our child, sister, friend we cannot change God’s truth to accommodate our feelings and sympathy.

We need a new catechesis of all members of our Church, she says, meaning that the Church needs to make a better job of teaching Catholics what they should believe.

Filing it where it belongs

Being a sad man, I haven't been able to resist writing to the editor of The Irish Catholic expressing the hope this new catechesis will give due weight to Mark 12:29. This is where Jesus, asked to name the greatest commandment, replied first to love God, and second to love your neighbour as yourself. “There is no commandment greater than these.”

Perhaps the Mass-going Catholics who voted yes in the referendum did so in conformity with this teaching, my letter wittily concludes. Will it be printed?  I fear not.  Up till a couple of years ago the editor used to print my letters, but he's wise to me now and recently has filed them where they belong.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reflections on that referendum

Home to vote: image that appeared in the Irish Examiner the day after the referendum with the caption “one of many emigrants that returned home yesterday to vote”.
A few reflections on the Irish marriage referendum, now that the result is known: Yes 62% No 38%, with a turnout of more than 60%.  

The Yes campaign brought about the largest turnout in a referendum in over two decades (we have plenty in Ireland), and it's led to talk of a “social revolution” and a “tsunami of support”.  A mass invasion of polling stations by young people, and the home to vote campaign (which I've only become aware of in the past couple of days). And grandparents turning out to vote yes too. “The people’s resounding approval of gay marriage was influenced by an energetic, orderly, and unprecedented campaign that points to a potential sea change in the future of Irish politics”  in the words of the Irish Examiner.

I'm not sure I can go along with this tsunami business. 60% turnout? Hmm. But what is true is that anyone over 40 can remember when government and people were in thrall to the Catholic Church. And that's now gone.  On Friday night, before the count,
I commented that in this locality Catholic mass attendance by people of my age is high, and I predicted that many massgoers would take their lead from the Catholic bishops.  Well I got a surprise. Looking at the voting figures for our constituency (Cork East) I see they very closely mirror the national average. Fewer Yes's than in Dublin, for sure, where it was over 70% - nonetheless, way higher than I expected.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: not wholehearted
It's worth mentioning that the Catholic Church didn't speak with a single voice.  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin didn't appear wholehearted in his opposition. “In airing my views in public debate, I do not expect to be listened to on the basis of dogmatic utterance, but on the reasonableness of my argument.”

And more than one Catholic priest publicly stated an intention to vote for gay marriage.  Fr Iggy O’Donovan for one, prompting a reader to the Irish Catholic to write “Dear Editor, I was flabbergasted to read of Fr Iggy O’Donovan’s reported intention to vote yes in regard to the referendum concerning same-sex marriage. I read the article three times to ensure I had not misconstrued the press report!”

An amusing anecdote from the campaign. The loving family appearing in the Vote No poster that featured at the top of my last post, weren't Irish, didn't know about the referendum, and when they found out, came on national radio to explain that they didn't support voting No. Lastly, can I justify the statement that Ireland was recently in thrall to the Catholic Church?  I can but not now.  For a taster I refer to the divorce referendums of 1986 and 1995 (previous post), and what I wrote about the Mother and Child crisis of 1951.

Friday, May 22, 2015

On today's gay marriage referendum in Ireland

Well, have voted in Ireland’s marriage equality referendum, and we’ll have to wait till tomorrow for the count.  All commentators are confident it will be passed. 

The necessity by the way for gay marriage to be put to a referendum, arises due to marriage being enshrined in the Irish constitution; and a constitutional amendment requires a referendum. The amendment voted on today is to add a clause to article 41. I would actually have preferred a different approach. Had I my way, the question on the ballot paper would have been to delete article 41 in its entirety, as it's already a hodge podge.   See for yourself.

It includes the state recognising “that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” And it contains the grounds for divorce (living apart for at least four years and no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation). Which apart from being too restrictive, just doesn't belong in a constitution, it belongs in legislation.

I should mention the historical background to these divorce clauses being in article 41. The present constitution began life in 1937 and when first adopted included an absolute ban on divorce.  To allow divorce at all, therefore, needed a constitutional amendment; and this was done by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1995.  That was the second divorce referendum. The first was in 1986 where the proposal to allow divorce was defeated by a whopping margin of almost 2:1. The 1937 constitution was a strongly Catholic document, and in 1986 the Catholic Church still held sway to keep it that way. 
Even in 1995, divorce only got through by a whisker.  

Two referendums today

There was another referendum today. It was to reduce the minimum age for candidates for the presidency from 35 to 21. Well, OK, I did vote for this, but heavens above, there are more pressing constitutional amendments that ought to have priority, and were considered by a constitutional convention last year.  Blasphemy for one.  The constitution provides that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”, though strangely
blasphemy wasn’t actually legislated against until 2009. No that’s not a typo, 2009.

Apparently there was a high turnout today in urban centres which indicates success for the Yes side,  as the No’s are likely to reside in rural Ireland where the Catholic Church still has some residual influence.  Here's this week’s Mitchelstown mass leaflet.

In this locality, mass attendance by people of my age is high, and many massgoers will, I'm fairly sure, take their lead from the Catholic bishops. Younger generations, less so. Generally, young voters appear to have been hugely energised by the Yes campaign, especially in urban areas.

According to the Irish Times whose website I've just consulted, the turnout across Dublin county was 65%, and in Cork city was above 60%.  For a referendum that's high, apparently.

I forgot to mention what would follow if my plan were to be followed to scrap article 41 entirely.  I would then enact legislation which would delete “marriage” from all laws. The state would register civil partnerships only, and all existing marriages would be reclassified as civil partnerships.  Henceforth marriage would be a cultural event that you could do in church or other venue of your choice.   If you believe that marriage is a union of man and woman, open to the procreation of children, and a gift from God, then there would be no apparent conflict between that belief and the law of the land.