Sunday, 14 October 2018

England: the redeeming features

It was a wonderful day on Saturday, and we took advantage of it to go walking with a friend in one of most charming places we know: Ashridge Forest, about a forty-minute drive from where we live.

Ashridge Forest: lovely in autumn, lovely in any season
Our return to England, after five weeks of warmth and sunshine as well as clear roads, was made painful by the lousy weather and appalling traffic. Fortunately, England does have many glorious aspects to compensate. Saturdays weather was one. As for Ashridge, where one can walk for miles though woods and fields, with occasional glimpses of deer, its right up there with the best of them.

These are the aspects of England, along with the friends we shall be leaving behind, that I shall miss when we complete our Brexit exit before the axe falls at the end of next March.

After Ashridge, our friend suggested we might like to head for the nearby market town of Tring, where there was an apple festival that day. That sounded like a good plan. I could already picture myself eating a sausage washed down with a pint of cider – I was planning to ask for pear cider, just to be perverse – at what I assumed would be cheerful, bustling fair.

Sadly, it was not to be. There’d be an apple parade in the morning, but by the time we showed up in town the festival was all over. Indeed, pretty much all that was left was to watch another friend and her Morris dancing group perform outside the Church.

Morris Dancing: more appealing than I'd expected
I’ve never been a great fan of Morris dancing, the rather strange custom mocked by many foreigners – indeed, by many English people – in which the dancers wear elaborate costumes decorated with bells, so they tinkle through the complex steps of the dances, accompanied by folk music played on traditional instruments, such as fiddles, guitars, squeezeboxes and tambourines. All a little weird. And yet, I have to admit, the group we saw was pretty impressive, the dancing spellbinding and highly skilful.

I think I could develop a taste for it, a discovery I’ve perhaps made a little late given that we’re about to leave the country where it has its roots.

The Morris dancing was outside the church, and it was inside it that I discovered the only trace of the apple festival: large sheets of paper on which people – children, I assume, for the most part – had glued cutouts of apples which they’d then coloured. I suppose it was gratifying to find some reminder of the festival, though it hardly made up for the brimming pint I’d promised myself and, in the absence of the sausage stand I’d been sure to find, it left me feeling hungry.

The closest we got to any apples. Let alone cider
The church smelled of incense, which suggested to me that it was probably High-Church: the Church of England isn’t content with being merely Protestant, it has currents running from the most Protestant Low-Church at one end of the spectrum, through Middle Church to the quasi-Catholic High Church at the other end. Fortunately, they don’t burn each other’s adherents anymore, so all these distinctions are now just part of the quaintness of English life.

Along with activities like Morris Dancing, festivals that are over so fast that you can miss them if you blink or pretty little market towns like Tring, which means places for the prosperous Middle Class to live and cultivate its charm.

The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Tring
I shall miss them all. Though perhaps not the church, fine though it was. If there’s one thing we’ve already found Spain isn’t short of, it’s Churches. Catholic, of course, almost without exception, but then the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Tring, with its scent of incense, isn’t really that different.

As for apples, well Danielle has plenty from her allotment. She'd turned a whole bunch of them into apple stew which we had with yoghurt when we got home. Pretty well made up for the lack of cider...

Friday, 12 October 2018

Sunshine in an oddly artificial but strangely attractive spot

Some curious places can be surprisingly appealing.

Take the Buttes-Chaumont park in Paris. For a long time, it was a refuse and sewage dump, a place where the bodies of executed criminals were put on display and, in one part, a gypsum and limestone quarry The gypsum was used to make plaster, so it was an important substance in building, which at least makes the purpose of that part of the site constructive – in the most literal sense – and that’s more than can be said for the other bits.

Eventually, though the city of Paris decided to make a park of the place.

I don’t know whether the presence of all that gypsum played a role in how they set about it, but they used a lot of concrete in modelling the park to their design. A waterfall, outcrops of boulders, a stream running between rocky banks – they were all built, not found, laid out by man not nature.

That’s what makes the place so odd. Little or nothing about it is natural, the landscape itself is artificial.

Natural it may not be, but the lake’s an attractive spot for all that
And yet, oddly enough, it manages to be attractive. The waterfall is worth a visit, and the lake is beautiful, especially with the rocky crag in the middle of it, crowned with a belvedere from which one can just glimpse the distant Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. So it’s fun to go to.

OK, I admit, it’s a bit remote, but that is the Sacré Coeur there
Danielle and I hadn’t been to Paris for years, though we lived on the western edge of the city for three years back in the nineties. My brother and his Danielle live now, and it was good to visit them for a couple of nights. Especially as the day before he left was his birthday so we took them out for a pre-birthday celebration.

During the day, while they were both working, we popped down to the Buttes-Chaumont to enjoy the park again. Which turned out to be wonderful. It helped that the weather was glorious, even well into October. What helped the day less was that it had been cold in the morning, so we ended up having to carry coats and sweaters as soon as the clouds cleared.

We even had lunch in a little restaurant opposite one of the gates. We could have eaten outside but chose to go inside, because it was simply too warm in the sun. So it was a fine way to enjoy the last day of our nearly six weeks in Continental Europe.

Of course, by the time we got home to Luton, it was chucking it down with rain. But, hey, it wouldn’t be a welcome home, would it, if it didn’t feel like home?

The waterfall’s fake too
But I like it anyway

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Health warning to parents: recognising the signs of Personalitycultoma

A new and insidious condition is affecting growing numbers of children today. It has hit epidemic proportions in the United States and Britain. It is a malignant and highly resistant form of cancer which, unusually for this kind of disease, primarily affects the mind rather than the body.

That makes it no less serious, however. Indeed, in many ways its detrimental effect is all the greater for being essentially psychological.

A Personalitycultoma reveals itself as an irrational and groundless belief that a particular individual is endowed with special powers, making him (or far less frequently her) a man (or woman) of destiny. Where in the past, policy or concrete achievement has been what matters, with a Personalitycultoma sufferer, merely being who they are is enough for the object of the cult to attract the reverence of sufferers from the condition.

Since it isn’t particularly difficult for people to be who they are (most of us manage it most of the time), and sufferers sees that as a sufficient basis for worship, you can imagine just how serious a condition Personalitycultoma is.

Interestingly, the objects of the personality cult generally share the view of the worshippers around them. In many ways, they may be the most afflicted victims of the disease.

So Donald Trump can change his position every few months, sometimes by as much as 180 degrees, and his worshippers, afflicted with Personalitycultoma, will simply follow. He has achieved nothing? It doesn’t matter. The worship is directed at the Donald for what he is not for what he does.

Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Jeremy Corbyn – the British Labour Party’s answer to Trump – has nothing to say on key matters, his silence itself must be evidence of his commitment to principle. This is not because sitting on the fence is principled – it clearly isn’t – but because Corbyn being the very embodiment of all honesty and principle, any position he takes – however obviously opportunist – must be a shining example of integrity.

What are the signs of Personalitycultoma? It’s vital to recognise them if any kind of action is to be taken by parents to effect a cure in their children.

Look out for the use of rules that apply only to people other than the object of worship. For instance, if a sufferer argues that any Labour MP should be discipline for lack of loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn, but believes that Corbyn should not have suffered the same fate for lack of loyalty to previous leaders, suspect Personalitycultoma.

Then there’s loyalty itself. A fixation on it, and on a far higher level of loyalty than most people would expect, is another sign of this pernicious condition. Donald Trump is known to value unquestioning loyalty above all other qualities, far ahead of competence, intelligence or know-how. Which is why his staff either screw up big time or let him down, in his own estimation, lamentably.

Similarly, Corbynistas make loyalty to Jeremy the keystone of any political position in British Labour. The notion that members, and above all Members of Parliament, should hold a leader to account is shelved. What is due is unqualified support. ‘Back the leader or shut up’ is the key slogan. Telling truth to power? Forget it. Outmoded. Not left wing enough. The true believer takes truth from power, where ‘truth’ is what the leader says.

Finally, there’s the wild claiming of success and denial of failure. Corbyn, with a little help from others, achieved a huge increase in Labour’s vote in the last general election. That’s a triumph for him. 

Did he win? No. That’s an indictment of those who questioned him.

Similarly, Trump achieved a major diplomatic success in his talks with Kim Jong Un. By doing so, he ensured the nuclear disarmament of North Korea. Personalitycultoma sufferers will celebrate the breakthrough. 

Has North Korea actually disarmed? No. That’s the fault of the fake-news brokers in the media, who spread this kind of uncomfortable news.

Truly an insidious and debilitating condition. Sufferers lose all capability to reason critically. With their heads in the dust by his feet, they can no longer see the glaring faults of the object of their reverence. His failings are invisible to them, however obvious they are to the rest of us.

What’s the cure?

Absolutely not the right treatment for Personalitycultoma
However tempting it may sometimes seem

Sadly, treatment options are unclear at the moment. The best hope seems to be regular dosages of reality. Unfortunately, it’s unknown how long the treatment would have to last to bring a sufferer out of the delusion. Would a defeat for Trump be sufficient? Or a second defeat for Corbyn? We fear that it might take far more, so parents should persist in delivering doses of reality over an extended period, until it is quite clear that the patient is beginning to return to sanity.

And, in this context, ‘parent’ means anyone with their feet on the ground. Because although the condition particularly affects children, those children are not necessarily young. Why, I know one sufferer well into his seventies.

Childish, certainly. A child, not necessarily.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Nationalism: toxic generally, but it has a lighter side

After a great month in Valencia, in Spain, we’re driving back towards England. That’s Danielle, the two toy poodles and me. The first stage of the journey took us into France. That meant travelling through Catalonia.

Or rather not through Catalonia, but into it, because even when you get over the border to France, you’re still in a bit of Catalonia, north of the Pyrenees. Even the French refer to the region as ‘le pays Catalan’ (note that the expression is in French, not Catalan).

Separatist feeling is nothing like as strong as on the Spanish side of the mountains. You hear far less Catalan being spoken on the streets. But there is still a strong attachment to the region’s Catalan roots. Town and street names often appear in Catalan as well as French, and the Catalan flag – gold and red bars – proudly flies everywhere.

The flag of Catalonia flying from a small surviving part of the
battlements of Perpignan (French) or Perpinyà (Catalan)
Indeed, when I ordered an ice cream in fine old town of Perpignan (Perpinyà in Catalan), the waiter who served me was full of congratulations of my choice of mandarin and raspberry as it produced a serving in the Catalan colours.

An excellent ice and in the appropriate colours for Catalonia
It took us a while to drive to French Catalonia. As we approached the border, we discussed where we might get dinner. One of the more attractive aspects of French towns – including, we assumed, the Catalan ones – is that they tend to offer a wide range of restaurants where one can eat well, and not always for a lot of money.

‘I’d like a crêpe,’ I announced.

Crêpes are sold in crêperies. They’re usually Breton and offer both savoury and sweet pancakes, and they can often be delicious. Sometimes not so much. But I’m forever hopeful. They usually sell wines and beers but the drink of choice to wash the crêpes down is Norman or Breton cider, served in pitchers and drunk out of vessels that look like nothing so much as tea cups, even down to the handles.

It was a shock when we got to the village where we were spending the night, just on the edge of the Pyrenees. There were far fewer restaurants than we’d confidently expected, and most of them were closed. With autumn on us and shorter days, we soon found ourselves wandering dark and gloomy streets in, even at 9:00 at night, in an apparently hopeless quest for somewhere that would serve us food.

It was beginning to seem to me that we would just have to come to terms with not finding anywhere open. We’d have to settle for a night without a meal. Given my weight, that might well be a lot better for my body, but it would be a lot less fun for my soul.

Danielle hadn’t yet accepted the grim truth that weren’t going to find anywhere. She was leading the way confidently ever upwards through the village streets, into the top levels where the streets were all streets and it was perfectly obvious we’d find no restaurants.

And then we came around a corner and saw light flooding out onto the pavement. A pool of good cheer. And – it was coming from a crêperie. We received a new burst of energy and new strength to our legs, as we made at speed towards the vision of delight, even though the street became even steeper for our last few steps.

It was not just a crêperie, but a genuinely Breton one. With a real Breton as owner and chef. It was open, we weren’t too late to order, and it let us in with the dogs. We had an excellent savoury crêpe each followed by one with caramelised apple, drowned in calvados and flambéd. 

Washed down with cider, of course.

On the wall alongside us was a large Breton flag. But, to my amusement, next to it was a Catalan one. I remarked on the fact to the proprietor.
Breton (left) and Catalan flags
‘Well, what do you expect?’ he asked, ‘if I hadn’t put a Catalan flag up, the people here would have lynched me.’

French Catalonia is about as far southwards from Brittany as you can get without leaving France. But Danielle is from Alsace, which is as far eastwards as you can get without landing up in Germany. But she’s always been struck by the number of Breton-Alsatian couples she knows.

She told the proprietor. ‘It seems that whenever a Breton meets an Alsatian, they both say, “what a shame that France comes between us.”’

France of course would deny that vile allegation. The nation brings these disparate regions together, its leaders would claim, it doesn’t separate them. A great notion, though somewhat belied by the staunch spirit of independence expressed in so lively a way by regions such as Alsace, Brittany or Catalonia.

Symbolised by the two fine flags we could admire while enjoying the excellent crêpes Danielle’s persistence had earned for us.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The dancing was inspiring, but the revolution never happened

Flamenco music and dance  it just gets your pulse racing.

That was the feeling that came over me the first time I went to a concert. That was in Paris, oddly enough. I was there on a school trip, the first time I’d failed to spend a holiday with my parents, making it an important rite of passage in itself. 

The music captures the soul of Spain and the musicians were, indeed, Spanish. The setting, on the other hand, was pure French. And it was a curious time in French history: the Easter of 1969. 

Less than a year earlier the city had seen the great events of May-June 1968. Many had then believed that the very foundations of the French state were under attack, that a new French revolution was taking place. Students in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the main university area, were out on the streets daily, battling against riot police.

Paris May-June 68: a student flinging cobblestones at police lines
The students’ weapon of choice was the cobblestone, dug out of the roadway and used as a missile against the police lines. When I first saw one of those stones close up, I have to say I was amazed by the strength some of those students must have had. I couldnt have thrown one far.

Many Paris streets were still cobbled at that time, but that was changing. For me, the most striking legacy of those events, was seeing the heaps of cobblestones piled in the courtyard of the youth hostel where our party stayed. Clearly, the authorities weren’t going to be caught out again: they were removing a far too easy source of ammunition for future rioters.

Do you remember the start of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Butch, played by Paul Newman, casing a bank which he’s beginning to realise now has too much security for his gang to raid again, asks ‘What was the matter with that old bank this town used to have? It was beautiful.’

A security guard replies ‘People kept robbing it.’

‘Small price to pay for beauty,’ says Butch.

Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy,
regretting the disappearance of the beautiful old bank
For as long as the cobbled streets of Paris were only causing havoc to car suspensions, the beauty seemed worth the price. But when they provided the fuel for revolution, the price was deemed too high.

Not that there ever really was a revolution. Years later, I heard a radio interview with Maurice Grimaud, Paris Police Chief at the time, and he said that it was a strange revolution that didn’t cost a single life – two people died on the fringes of the fighting but none at all in the fighting itself. And, as he pointed out, the conflict was entirely contained within the Latin quarter – he never lost control and never allowed it to spill out of the small area where it began.

That didn’t stop Charles de Gaulle, then President, running off to the French garrison in Baden-Baden, ready to form a government in exile and prepare for a new triumphant return in arms to the fatherland, just as he’d done in 1940. But by 1969, he was back in the Elysée Palace. Though not for long: he resigned as I was travelling back to school.

So it was in a slightly febrile atmosphere, the jittery climate of Paris in 1969, between the May-June days and de Gaulle’s departure, that I saw my first Flamenco concert. An oasis of pleasure in a desert of tension. And it marked me. It left me with an ineradicable love of Flamenco. What’s more, whenever I hear Flamenco again, I think of that strange moment in Paris half a century ago. 

As I did the other day, as we approach the end of our stay in Valencia. It was another great performance, full of verve, dynamism and beauty. There are moments whenever I watch Flamenco when I wonder how they manage to do it. The boots hit the stage with such force. The singing is so powerful. The guitar playing so frenetic. The dancers are full of passion while maintaining such dignity.

The performance also gave me a sense of political wistfulness. Because the audience was made up of French and German and Dutch as well as Spaniards. And even a group of English people.

Brought together in joint enjoyment of an exciting evening.

Passion and dignity combined
It was clear that the groups had a great deal in common, bound together by a shared culture. How could one of them be about to sever its links with the others? Why was Brexit going to force those Englishmen to break their bonds with their fellow Europeans?

Its a strange, incomprehensible state of affairs.

It’s clear that more and more people in Britain are turning against Brexit. It is tearing the ruling Tory Party apart. It has caused major divisions within the Labour opposition too, divisions that would doubtless explode if ever the party came to office and had to deal with the issues of leaving the EU.

No one seems set to gain from Brexit, and yet no one seems to be able to do anything to stop it. Britain seems bound, inevitably, for a great leap backwards. A change against progress and towards a world that prefers walls to bridges.

Ah, well. Another good reason for going to a Flamenco concert. Get the blood stirring, the feet tapping, the hands clapping. And take your mind off the sheer cussedness of the world. 

I met Flamenco soon after a revolutionary movement that reverberates still today. And now I’ve enjoyed it just before a reactionary step of equal moment. Sadly, while the revolution never really happened, Brexit I fear most certainly will.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Wedding in the hills

What a weekend! What a visit! And what a day!

Hatch, match and despatch. These are often said to be the only functions of an Anglican priest these days – performing christenings, weddings and funerals. I suspect there are clerics of other faiths of whom the same could be said.

I’m now of what we like to call a certain age.

Isn’t that an odd expression? I was pretty certain of my age when I was twenty-eight. Even more certain when I was eight and birthdays still came around far too slowly. In fact, if ever I’ve been uncertain of my age, it is now, when I frequently find myself having to subtract one date from another, a task made more awkward because I have nothing like enough fingers.

Still, a certain age, in the sense of an advanced age, is what I’ve now attained. An age where ‘despatch’ is more common than the other two. Most recently, it was my mother’s funeral. Marriages? Births? In the past for many of my contemporaries.

But then, suddenly, that changed. After all, there are our kids. And not before time, as it happens. My youngest son, Nicky, is 34. But he’s finally taken the plunge, and with a remarkably charming woman. Sheena and he are clearly made for each other, similar where they need to be, and where they’re not, wholly complementary.

So this weekend we were at their ‘matching’ ceremony.

And, boy, did they handle it well. They both live in Madrid (yes, there’s something special about an Irishwoman and an Englishman hooking up in the Spanish capital).

They arranged their wedding in the Sierra, the mountains, outside Madrid. The village was Santa Maria de la Alameda, at nearly 1500 metres, with a permanent population of 40, so the wedding guests tripled the number of inhabitants.

Last moments of bachelor life for Nicky and Sheena
The mayor conducted the service outside a house in which some of the more discerning guests stayed. By discerning I mean ‘of a certain age’. We were the ones who weren’t planning on dancing from the late – extremely late – dinner through to breakfast. It was good to have a place to retreat to well away from the sounds of revelry, where I use the word ‘sounds’ loosely – I suspect the neighbours might have chosen something a little more ferocious, such as ‘noise’ or ‘din’.

Happy couple in a glorious setting
The ceremony was touching. The bride was greeted by one of her favourite songs, played by a band of friends including the groom on guitar. The setting was stunning, flooded with sunlight and with a ring of hills in the background. And the mayor conducted the ceremony with charm and good humour. In particular, she made a point of welcoming the guests who came from France, the United Kingdom, Italy and other parts of Europe, and even from Australia and California (she did say California and not the United States, but I suspect that many of the inhabitants of that fine State would also prefer to make that distinction).

‘Nice of her to be so welcoming of foreigners,’ I told the old friend who was standing next to me.

Well, she’s a young friend, but she’s been a friend a long time. Nicky’s first girlfriend, making it all the more gratifying that she (and her boyfriend) danced at his wedding.

As it happens, she’s also pretty acute.

‘I’m not sure we’d be quite so welcome had we been from Tanzania,’ she whispered back to me.

I’m sure she was right, but as things were, the ceremony went smoothly and pleasantly and satisfied everyone.

That was the tone of the whole weekend. I know Sheena in particular, but Nicky too, invested great effort in organising the entire occasion. And not just them: it was impressive to see how many friends were helping with flowers and decorations, with organising events and helping guests to their bedrooms, with making sure the speeches were given in the right order by the designated speakers, with delivering the right people to the right place at the right time in the right clothes – even, I kid you not, with their hair in the right state (two friends helped get Nicky’s hair just right – and it was; I know Sheena could count on all the help she needed too).

The event proved how right they all were: as always happens when preparations are well directed, there was no sign of the effort, but simply a sense that everything worked precisely as it should, in apparent effortlessness.

Among other things, I was astonished by the meals. On the wedding day, there was a meal referred to as breakfast, but which went on until late morning. There were only crisps and drinks at the time I associate with the idea of lunch. But by 3:00 we were gathering for what was called ‘cocktails’ which seemed to be snacks without drinks though, confusingly, drinks were also available (but not cocktails).

That led without apparent break to what they called lunch, and we in England inexplicably call the wedding breakfast. It lasted into the evening, merging into what I like to think of as dinnertime though in Spain, that doesn’t start until 10:00. At which point they served us some other meal for which I can’t think of a name, but which turned out to be as enjoyable as all the others, so I didn’t complain.

My impression is that from about 3:00 onwards, barely a minute passed when food wasn’t being served. We certainly didn’t go hungry over the weekend.

Or, as it happens, thirsty either.

The entire wedding weekend left me with a feeling for which the word ‘blissful’ doesn’t seem too strong. That appeared to be a general sentiment amongst the guests. As you can imagine, this has left me with something of a taste for such ‘match’ ceremonies. 

You may have noticed that I mentioned this was my youngest son’s wedding. My eldest son has been married for some time. This rather leaves Michael, the middle son, to titillate expectations. And since he was accompanied by Raquel, a young woman as charming as Sheena and as well-suited to him as Sheena is to Nicky, those expectations have been well titillated.

Michael and Raquel at one of the meals.
No idea what to call it. It happened some time between 3:00 and midnight
Who knows? If he (and she) can provide us with another such occasion in the near future, they’ll receive no objection from me.

And, of course, I haven’t forgotten that ‘hatch’ sometimes follows ‘match’. After such a spectacular wedding weekend, who knows whether we might not be celebrating a new arrival some time soon.

Something else I’d certainly be entirely up for.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Leatrice in Beirut

It’s strange how much certain things can change in seventy years. It’s even stranger, and rather sadder, to see how certain other things have grimly resisted every attempt at change. Or got worse.

In 1948, my mother Leatrice was living in Paris and working for UNESCO. In November, she travelled to Beirut for a conference and she wrote to her parents on the 16th, soon after arriving:

… I hope you have already received my cable. I didn’t want to let you know until I arrived that I was travelling by air, knowing that you would worry, but we had a most uneventful trip…

Flying was still an adventure seventy years ago. It’s true, I tend to phone Danielle after a flight to say I’ve arrived safely, but I do the same after a train journey or even a car trip. As it happens, I find the prospect of travelling any great distance by car far more daunting than catching a plane. I have more confidence in the pilot’s ability to fly his plane than in my own driving – or that of other drivers on the road.

As for a cable – a telegram – I don’t even know who still provides a service these days. Certainly, I don’t remember the last time I sent or received one. In the ages of text messages or emails, does anyone use telegrams?
Leatrice (third from left) enjoying a moment's relaxation in Beirut, 1948
The trip to Beirut marked Leatrice for life. She mentioned it frequently down the years. And looking at her letters home, it’s easy to see why.

The mountains now have snow on them, she wrote on 20 November. It is cold, clear and sunny. This country grows on one. The colour on the hills mixed with the brilliance of the Mediterranean is unbelievably lovely. I have come to like the Lebanese very much. After the coldness of the Parisian, it is heart-warming to meet people who laugh with their eyes as well as their mouths.

The people may have been great, but apparently Leatrice was concerned about the sanitary conditions:

… if we drink any water, we put chlorine in it. It tastes exactly like a swimming bath, but is at least disinfected.

Personally, I’d prefer to take my chance on the infection. On the other hand, it took me a week to recover from the Cairo belly I brought back from Egypt ten days ago, so maybe Leatrice was right.

But she hadn’t finished with the subject of the people.

… it is quite obvious that they are a pure Semitic race. Olive skinned, long heads, black hair, large black eyes, curly mouths.

The racial comments I’d probably avoid, personally, but I like the underlying message, one Leatrice would repeat throughout her life: ethnically, there’s no difference between the Arabs of the Levant and Jews. The idea that there should be racial tension between them, far less conflict, is simply indefensible.

But, and this is one of the things that has not changed in seventy years, or if anything has got worse, that conflict is proving agonising and irresolvable.

We touched down in Damascus and came by taxis over the border into Lebanon… We saw some truckloads of soldiers in Syria, but there isn’t actually much military activity there. Lebanon isn’t actually at war, although Syria is.

The Israeli-Arab war of 1948 had already broken out.

Isn’t it curious that at the time Syria had been relatively untouched by war? To the extent that it was regarded as safe enough to bring staff through to Beirut? That wouldn’t be the case today.

In any case, these days we’d fly directly to Beirut.

I am, of course, very tactful about myself, but discover there is practically no feeling at all about the war. After all Lebanon is not officially engaged in it. The people I know are all Christian, and they feel themselves in very much the same position as the Jews in the Middle East. A few hundred thousand (about 600,000 surrounded by 40 million Moslems, who hate their guts). They generally feel that there is a slight bond in having another minority just over the border as some slight protection. In 1860 there was an awful pogrom of the Christians here, and the ones left fled to the mountains, and hence most of the people living in the hills are members of the Greek Orthodox church [I think she meant the Maronite Christian church]. There are actually about twenty different sects getting on fairly amicably, including a Jewish community. I had my hair washed by a woman who spoke Russian, and then burst into Yiddish with another customer.

Some things have changed, others have stayed the same. The underlying tensions have continued and, if anything, hardened. And the communities that got along reasonably well have broken out into full-scale combat, especially in Syria. The fighting Lebanon was spared in 1948 has spilled over its borders. Indeed, the links between the Christians and Jews that my mother spotted, took a particularly ugly form in 1982. That was when Israeli forces stood back and let Maronite Christian militia carry out a massacre of the Palestinian inhabitants of the Sabra neighbourhood and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.

A deeply moving representation of this terrible event is in the excellent semi-autobiographical Israeli film, Waltz with Bashir. The sense of horror is made somehow even more intense by the film being made as a cartoon. Until the last few scenes, at least.

Leatrice left Beirut on 15 December, after around a month. With many fond memories. As early as in her letter of 16 November, she had written:

Have now seen the cedars of Lebanon. A very lovely tree. Tall, graceful and a very bright green.

What a pity that Lebanon isn’t primarily known for its cedars any more.

And as for the effect of war on a peaceful nation, what more pitiful example could be provided than Syria...