Feliz cumpleaños Jorge Guillén

1145jorge-guillen-buena

One of the spanish poets of the “Generation of ’27” Guillén lived to the ripe old age of 91.

A prolific poet and a respected academic, nominated four times for the Nobel Literature prize.  On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he was imprisoned in Pamplona for political reasons.  He was released and continued to teach in Seville until 1938.

Then he emigrated to the United States.  There is speculation that Nationalist Catholic Spain was an unhealthy environment for an academic married to a Jewish wife.  It certainly proved to be a very unhealthy climate for his fellow Generation 27 poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

So to a poem about death looming in the distance. A grey wall across our future obscuring what lies beyond.

-o0o-

Muerte a lo lejos: by Jorge Guillén

Je soutenais l’éclat de la mort toute pure.

VALÉRY

 

Alguna vez me angustia una certeza,

Y ante mí se estremece mi futuro.

Acechándolo está de pronto un muro

del arrabal final en que tropieza

 

La luz del campo. ¿Mas habrá tristeza

si la desnuda el sol? No, no hay apuro

todavía. Lo urgente es el maduro

fruto. La mano ya lo descorteza.

 

…Y un día entre los días el más triste

será. Tenderse deberá la mano

sin afán. Y acatando el inminente

 

Poder diré sin lágrimas: embiste,

justa fatalidad. El muro cano

va a imponerme su ley, no su accidente.

 

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#MeToo nothing new

Pan and Syrinx, by Peter Paul Rubens

Pan and Syrinx, by Peter Paul Rubens

A priapic director, dressing gown flapping open, chasing a pretty actress round his hotel room.  A seedy image but hardly a new one.  As old as myth and fable.

A fable that gave us two of the most scary objects ever made by man.

Syrinx was a chaste nymph who was pursued by the God Pan, the goat legged wild spirit who represents the wilderness and fertility.  In a bid to avoid him Syrinx appealed to the water nymphs to hide her, and they turned her into hollow reeds.  As he passed Pan sighed and the hollow reeds resonated.  So he cut them and created the pan pipes.  So next time you are accosted by a brightly clad troupe of Peruvian troubadours in Subway, Underground or Metro you can blame it on the Ancient Greek Harvey Weinstein.   Pan pipes – a particular form of torture!

But for the ultimate torture comes another word derived from Syrinx herself.  The hollow reed was the model for the hollow needle, from which we get the word Syringe.  Next time you are at the doctor or dentist and this object of medieval torture emerges you know who to blame.

Panpipes.jpg

 

Happy Saturnalia

Io.jpg

Beginning on Dec 17th, the Roman Festival of Saturnalia was a time to upend conventions.  Things that were illegal at other times of the year were permitted during the festival of Saturn.  Sumptuary laws were broken to permit feasting and public drunkenness.  It was time to party, party, party.  Gambling was permitted.

It was also a great time for people who were normally constrained by their place.  Women could let loose.  Slaves and servants were given pride of place and were served at table by their masters.  There was liberty for wives to tell the truth to husbands and for slaves to berate their masters.

Role reversal and guising were commonly practiced and these elements have become key components in our modern Christmas Panto.  In pantomime the lead boy is often played by a woman, the dame is played by a man.  Mistaken identity and upending of norms, where the pauper marries the princess are common themes.

Saturnalia was a festival of light centred around the week of the winter solstice.   It involved bringing evergreen foliage into the house and using it to decorate the walls, symbolic of protecting the kindling.  From this tradition we get the modern fashion for bedecking our halls with the holly and the ivy.

Candles were burned through Saturnalia as symbols of knowledge and learning, and translated into the current practice of lighting up homes for Christmas with coloured lights.

During Saturnalia work stopped and schools closed, to give people a holiday period, just as today.

Citizens put aside their togas and dressed instead in colourful greek outfits that were bright and garish.  A bit like we do today by wearing gaudy cheesy Christmas jumpers.

Citizens, who normally walked bare headed, would doff a pilleus, a pointy felt cap usually worn by freedmen.  Next time you are at the office christmas party and find a pointy cap on your dinner place setting you will know it is designed to reduce your status, and make all of you equal for the party.

Romans also had a tradition of gift giving for Saturnalia that we have translated to the notion of Santa Claus.

Ever wonder where the tradition of sending Christmas cards came from?  You got it!  It’s another Saturnalia custom.  As with the verse below from Catullus Romans would send each other verses of poetry for the holiday.  This year I revived something of the Roman tradition by sending framed poems to my family and to SOME friends.

 

Saturnalia Gift ; by Catullus

If I didn’t love you, sweet teasing Calvus,
far more than my own eyes, then for today’s gift
I’d hate you with the hate of Vatinius;
for what have I said or done to deserve it
that you’re killing me now with all these poets?
May the gods frown down on whichever client
settled accounts with this roll of miscreants
(unless, as I suspect, it’s that school-master
Sulla, writing off debts by setting these texts,
then I bear no hate, have no complaint to make:
at least your hard work receives due recompense).
God, here’s as cursed a verse as one might expect –
a book, I know, you sent to your Catullus
to finish him off, to floor and to bore us
on Saturnalia, our day for pleasure.
No, not so fast, you can’t escape, my false friend,
for if this long night of torment ever ends
I’m off to the bookshops to buy Caesius,
Aquinus and Suffenus, all poison pens,
to pay you back in full for your own torture.
Until then, goodbye, farewell, it’s time to quit:
let those bad feet limp away, lines and couplets,
disease of the age, unreadable poets.

(translated by Josephine Balmer)

African Vandals

Belisarius

General Belisarius

The Battle of Tricamarum ended the rule of the Vandals in North Africa, Dec 15th 533.  I have always felt sorry for the Vandals.  Originating in the Baltic Shield area of Scandanavia / Northern Germany they were shunted through Europe by pressure from other tribes.  Constantine gave them permission to move from modern day Poland southwards of the Danube to Pannonia, an area now covered by Austria /Hungary.

When the Huns began to raid the Roman empire the Vandals & Alans found themselves in an exposed position.  They shifted westwards through Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees and settled in North Western Spain.  The Visigoths followed them and pushed them further south.  They established themselves in southern Spain, giving their name to the region of Andalucia.

Then they migrated across to Africa and established a kingdom in the former territory of Carthage in modern day Tunis.  For a time they held sway in the region, extending their reach to Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Malta and the Balearic Islands.  When they sacked Rome in 455 they for all time associated their names with the act of Vandalism.  In 534, a mere 80 years later, they were wiped out by Belisarius, the famous general of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

The last king of the Vandals was given estates in modern day Turkey where he lived out his final days.  I can’t imagine it was a happy retirement, and inspired this poem.

 

Gelimer in Galatia

With iron fist I rule
this soft slave army
maintaining broad estates
that sour my stomach
which was made for coarser food.

I was raised on brutal fare,
the savage greatness of my folk
in days when we sacked Rome
and carried off her wealth
to our African kingdom.

My wet cousin, Hilderic King
I ousted with my brothers
for his milksop conversion
to Eastern Heresy
and the favour of that Roman Emperor.

Three years free I led my Vandals
before my nemesis landed
and slew my brother Ammatas
the day I executed
my cousin Hilderic, prisoner.

My last hope died on the winter sands
bathed by blood of my blood, Tzazo,
his regiment, my faithful soldiers
my city, my heart,
but not my life.

A hard, cold mountain winter
glued the ribs to our bellies
and though I refused to kneel
not once but twice
at last I bowed my head.

I marched in triumph once
before cheering Roman crowds
through Constantinople’s streets
bound in chains to celebrate
the glory of Justinian.

King without a crown,
with these fine lands, soft subjects,
suitably tamed
stripped of regal pride
I delivered the words they gave me.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”

Enter a Pilgrim

Allenby

On this day, Dec 11th, 100 years ago, 1917, General Allenby entered Jerusalem.  In doing so he became the first Christian to take effective control of the city since Bailan of Ibelin surrendered the city to Saladin  in 1187.  (Excluding a limited negotiated return by Frederick II in the 6th crusade 1229-1244).

Allenby clearly understood the deep significance of his arrival in the holy city.  For this reason he elected not to enter in triumph as a conqueror.  Instead he entered as a pilgrim.  He walked in via the Jaffa gate in what was a low key affair, as depicted by the photo above.

I contrast this with the recent decision by Donald Trump to overturn decades of US foreign policy and order the removal of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Trump has done exactly what Allenby sought to avoid.  He made a clear political statement favouring one community over all others.

The result of Donald Trump’s announcement is widespread rioting in the Middle East, not only in Palestine but also extending into neighbouring countries.  The usual flag burning is taking place outside US embassies all over the muslim world.

This manic and destructive act neatly focuses US media attention away from his tax bill, which rewards the super-rich at the expense of the middle class and poor Americans.  So what if a few muslim youths are shot, buildings torched and the people of Israel face a violent backlash?  The important thing is that US Oligarchs can look forward to even greater expansion of their wealth.  And let’s not forget, Trump is one of them.

 

 

Happy Birthday William Blake

Blake

Born this day 1757.

The Clod and the Pebble; by William Blake

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
nor for itself hath any care,
but for another gives its ease,
and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay
trodden with the cattle’s feet,
but a Pebble of the brook
warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only self to please,
to bind another to its delight,
joys in another’s loss of ease,
and builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Demagogues

On this day in 1895 two controversial world leaders were born.

Zog

Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli was born to a wealthy landowning family in Albania.  He was appointed a district governor ahead of his older half brother, perhaps because of his mothers royal connections.  He signed the Albanian declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire and was instrumental in creating Albania as a parliamentary democracy.

He was elected first president of Albania in 1925.  In 1928 he turned Albania into a Kingdom and appointed himself King Zog I, King of the Albanians.  He was not recognized by European royalty who looked down upon self appointed kings, but he was well regarded in the Turkish/Arabic world.

Zog relied heavily on loans from Italy to prop up the Albanian Economy.  His military was run by Italian officers.

In classic Albanian style there were 600 blood feuds against him, and he survived 55 assassination attempts.  His Son and Heir, Leka, was born in April 1939.  At the same time the Italians moved on Albania.  Zog cleaned the gold out of the Central Bank, packed up his wife, child and the cash and fled the country.  He spent the rest of his life living in faded grandeur as a King in exile.

juanandevaperon

The other was Juan Perón, thrice elected President of Argentina, husband to Eva Perón nicknamed Evita, star of the Rice & Webber Musical.

Perón was raised from the entrepreneurial classes in Argentina, with roots in Sardinia.  He was sent to Catholic boarding school and joined the military.  He enjoyed a successful career as an officer and was sent to Mussolini’s Italy to study mountain warfare, for which the Italian Alpini were famous.  He was in Italy in 1939 when Mussolini was invading Albania.

In Europe Perón closely observed the governing structures of Fascim, Military dictatorship, Communism and Social democracy and concluded that the latter was the best form of government.  He preferred social democracy to liberal democracy, a view I share myself.

For everyone who expresses positive opinions on Perón you will find three people who hate him.  Throughout his career he focused on three principles.  Government should be democratic, alleviation of poverty and dignity of work.  Again, I happen to be aligned with him on these.

His three presidencies were interspersed with periods of military dictatorship.  His life was frequently at risk and he had to flee the country and live in exile.  The capitalists hated him because he fought against the exploitation of workers.  The conservative Catholics hated him for passing laws permitting divorce and legalising prostitution.  The socialists and the communists hated him because they felt he was too supportive of the entrepreneurial and capitalist system.  The military dictators hated him as a successful military officer who would not back their coups d’état or support the rule of military Juntas.  All sides contending for rule accused him of corruption, living a life of luxury through embezzlement of the public purse.  Meanwhile he was loved by the people, because he fought for them.

Don’t get me wrong here, I know Perón was no angel.  He was anti-education and I have a major problem with that position.  He was in a constant war with third level institutions.  Slogans abounded on the streets such as “Promote democracy- kill a student” or “Shoes not Books”.  His politics made for some very strange bedfellows.  He was on good terms with Che Guevara and Salvador Allende.  But he was a realist about US involvement in the overthrow of Allende and support for General Pinochet.  He warned the Argentinian People that this could happen to him.  He was also accused of having an affair with a 13 year old girl, on which accusation he commented “13?  I am not superstitious”.

He did his best to steer Argentina down a middle path in the cold war, attempting to maintain relations with both USA and Russia and gaining favour with neither regime.  His motivation was to maintain Argentinian independence.

He made Argentina the strongest economy in Latin America, despite overt attempts by the USA to undermine his reform government.  But Perón avoided turning his nation into another Cuba, or Chile.

A complex politician it is interesting to compare his career with that of Zog, who was a perfect example of someone who profited from rule.  Perón worked all his life for his country, despite the hatred and criticism he faced.  I believe he will go down in history as a good politician and a true patriot and that history will remember him well.

He was desecrated in death, his mausoleum raided and his hands cut off with a chainsaw.  His ceremonial personal effects were stolen.