Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Hedge-clipping, torture and lies

Sunday afternoon. I was invited to go swimming, which tempted me, but it was a sunny day and I knew I had to refuse the invitation. Rain followed by sun had had its usual effect and it was time to trim the hedge.

It's a vast, unruly hedge. One day I'll seek advice and cut it down to a more manageable level. I'm not tall enough to reach the top so I stand on tiptoe with the shears, trying to reach. It doesn't quite work. I have the only hedge in the area with a Mohican haircut.

There's an electric hedge-trimmer in the shed but I hadn't charged the battery. I thought I might get some useful exercise if I used the old, rust, manual trimmers. I tested them on a twig - they seemed to work.

It's some time since I've trimmed the hedge with shears. At first I was hesitant, not wanting to cut into the shiny, newly-opened leaves of privet and ivy. I had to remind myself that they would grow back. I looked at the uneven surface of the hedge, as wavy as if I viewed it through the bottom of a beer-glass. I wondered how the eighteenth century labourers who scythed lawns achieved the smooth surfaces shown in the paintings. Perhaps the paintings lied.

And then, as I got into the rhythm of hedge-trimming, my thoughts wandered.

I thought back to the beginning of the Iraq war and all the lies that gained consent in parliament and Congress. I remembered the falsehoods about "weapons of mass destruction." And I thought of more recent revelations that I read in Craig Murray's blog: that waterboarding was approved by Condoleeza Rice in 2002 - before the Iraq war - in order to extract confessions of the non-existent link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. I used to wonder why so few German people had the courage to oppose Hitler. I'm beginning to understand. When we question and oppose our own government, politicians respond with an appearance of aggrieved self-righteousness that is supported by torture and lies. We write to our MPs, we go on marches, we speak out again and again - and all we get in response are the same smiling lies. It seems impossible to achieve change.

I was gloomy as I swept the hedge-trimmings down the pavement.

But there are still people trying to speak the truth and achieve change.

I'm not sure who trawled through legal cases to uncover the case of a Texan sherrif and deputies who were put on trial in 1983 - under the Reagan administration - for waterboarding a suspect. The court decided it was torture; the sherrif was sentenced to ten years in jail and the deputies to four years each. George W. Bush's legal advisors didn't cite that case when they approved torture by waterboarding. I'm glad to see there are people who care sufficiently about the law and human rights to continue to bring the truth to light.

Today, Craig Murray, sacked as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan for opposing British collusion in torture by the Karimov regime, finally gives evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. It's the first time he has given evidence and he is expected to point to the role of British government ministers in approving (even encouraging) the involvement of MI5 and MI6 in obtaining information through torture. The Committee proceedings will be screened live from 1.45 today (Tuesday, 28th April). Craig Murray was not merely sacked by New Labour; he was subject to a series of disgusting smears in a way which now seems almost routine. Our government's willingness to ruin lives - by policies, by torture, by smears - no longer horrifies us. We've got used to it. But we should be horrified. We need people like Craig Murray to remind us how horrific this all is.

There are still people who say we need torture to produce information in the "war against terror." But torture doesn't produce reliable information. Most people will say whatever the torturers want to stop the pain. Torture produces lies.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Ruskin was wrong

Ruskin's appalled words are quoted on notices and in guidebooks all over Monsal Dale. He was shocked at the coming of the railway:

There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the vale of Tempe; you might have seen the gods there morning and evening, - Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the Light, walking in fair procession on the lawns of it, and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags. You cared neither for gods nor grass, but for cash (which you did not know the way to get). You thought you could get it by what the Times calls 'Railroad Enterprise'. You enterprised a railroad through the valley, you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange, you Fools everywhere!"

Now the main railway line is closed and regretted, though there is a steam railway offering recreational trips from Matlock (I haven't travelled in it for years.) If I want to reach the Peak District, I need the Transpeak bus which not only connects Buxton to Bakewell but Nottingham to Manchester. I don't expect Ruskin would approve of that either - and I find tarmac roads with traffic jams far less pleasant than rails and steam trains. For me they have the magic of antiquity.

When I think about it, I realise that the building of the railway in the Peak District must have created even more horror than today's extra runways and nuclear power stations. But Ruskin's account of the Peak District, which sees it as an untouched playground of the gods, misses an important aspect of the landscape.

When Ruskin wrote, the Peak District had been an industrial district for centuries. Before the railways there were canals and mills and mines. Land was ordered for agriculture and grazing; streams were diverted, woods planted and cut down, dry stone walls built. Nature was placed under strict control. The first tourists who saw the caverns saw the work of generations of miners, who hacked and scooped stony pathways and caves. Gradually the nineteenth century drew the inhabitants of the Peaks away from its green fields, hills and rivers to the manufacturing towns. But they returned at weekends to walk the paths they had made on familiar slopes and to clamber on the forbidden bleakness of Kinder Scout.

The walkers still take the bus towards Monsal. Last Saturday, my daughter decided to come with me. We took the bus to Ashford-in-the-Water, then climbed the hill to Monsal Head where we stopped for a pub lunch. Then we descended into Monsal Dale and the viaduct, which had looked so small from the heights, loomed above us. It seemed as much a part of the scene as the hills. One day I'll hire a bike and cycle on the viaduct - it's part of the Monsal Trail which offers a fairly flat route for pedestrians and cyclists who would otherwise be unable to explore the valley.

Our six-mile route was tougher. We balanced on rocks in a stream and scrambled through steep woodland. We came out into sunny fields and walked by rivers, canals and mills. Some walkers seemed surprised by my daughter's outfit as though her Barbie-pink university hoodie and matching pink-soled trainers were unsuitable in serious walking territory. But she made good process and was faster than me - and not just because I stopped every few minutes to take another photo.

Eventually grandeur gave way to cosy quaintness as we returned to Ashford to wait for the bus.

I keep looking at the photos from the walk and recalling the day as an encounter with nature and remoteness. But I depended on the bus to get me to Ashford and the focus of the most splendid views in Monsal Dale was the railway viaduct Ruskin so detested.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Dead dragon in Leicester

I determined to cheer the dragon. Isn't there an English tradition of supporting the underdog? (Well, unless the underdog is poor, foreign, an asylum-seeker, a gypsy ...) And when the dragon arrived, the smallest children in the crowd agreed with me.

I was in Leicester Market on St. George's Day. I usually avoid St. George's Day festivities, though I've been known to celebrate 23rd April as Shakespeare's birthday. But when I heard about the Leicester festivities, I decided to take a look.

Leicester is good at festivities. There are lights and events to celebrate Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Hannukah and any other occasion that calls for a bit of a party. Apparently Leicester Market has a tradition of annual draogn-slaughtering but I only found out about it this year, when I overheard a conversation in a cafe and checked on the Council's website.

The battle started shortly after 11. A small crowd has gathered, some with England flags, hats, football shirts and wigs but most simply curious and willing to be entertained. Children from a nursery stood watching curiously in the sunshine. The actor playing St George took the microphone and told us what is known or guessed about St. George, pointing out that he was probably a Roman soldier of Turkish origin. "So he wasn't English," said the actor, "but then, neither am I."

We were instructed to provide suitable sound effects: to wolf-whistle at the maiden, provide the clip-clop sounds of St. George's absent steed, to cheer St. George's successes and boo the dragon. There wasn't much enthusiasm for booing the dragon, whose big eyes and soft green fur made him a target for affectionate cuddles from the children, but when the maiden screamed and the dragon pursued first the maiden and then St. George through the crowd, we all joined in with shouts of "Look behind you!"

Eventually the dragon was conquered and the maiden rescued but, while most of the crowd applauded, the small children had to be reassured that no damage had been done to the dragon in the making of the play. So the dragon sat up, then stood and spent some time shaking hands with worried children as St. George and maiden took their bow.

Then St. George distributed long-stemmed red roses. I bore mine back to the office, leading at least one colleague to assume I'd slipped out for a romantic assignation.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Chucking out time at the cemetery

Any sense of the dead remained stubbornly absent as I headed back to the main entrance of Pere Lachaise to meet my friends. They're younger than me: Vicky's 30 and Katie was a day short of 27. The sun and the imminent birthday celebration made for a cheerful mood as we strolled, climbed and clambered among the graves.

We consulted the plan together and tried to work out a route, negotiating between our favourite dead people.
We began by retreading the tourist trail to Jim Morrison, with a short detour to Heloise and Abelard. I was glad to glimpse Francis Poulenc on the way. Then we headed up towards Edith Piaf. I suppose the black marble, adorned with crucifix, bore some relationship to her life but I wanted something as rough and moving as her songs.

While our route was determined by the locations of some of Pere Lachaise's famous inhabitants, we were soon distracted by the delights of unexpected monuments. None of us knew who Andre Gill was but we were cheered by his bust with bright red chrysanthemum button-hole - not to mention a starfish laid before it. Katie, facing her advancing age with determination, decided to contemplate the possibilities of her own tomb, and decided that she too would have a fresh button-hole every day and that the duty of replacing the flower would be linked to a scholarship for poor postgraduates.

As we progressed, Katie's tomb designs grew more extravagant. She liked the bats carved into a metal door, art nouveau mosaics, the numerous mourning figures (almost always female). She wondered how to commemorate her books, her study and her shoes. Seeing a gigantic obelisk which towered over a family tomb vast enough to accommodate a living family on two storeys, she briefly hesitated over which to choose, then announced that she wanted both. "I won't have a tomb - I'll have a theme park," she declared. This added to our enthusiastic search for extravagant memorials.

Then Vicky admitted, when she was a child having dramatic tantrums, her parents had compared her to Sarah Bernhardt. Katie and I decided that we must find Sarah Bernhardt's tomb and photograph Vicky (in suitably dramatic pose) beside it. Unfortunately the "divine Sarah" was interred some way back from the path and her tomb was hard to photograph. Just as we'd readied our cameras and persuaded Vicky to adopt a suitable pose, a group arrived with their tour guide to trudge round the tomb. Vicky immediately abandoned her pose and the tour group prevented us from taking photos.

There was little gloom at Pere Lachaise. Jacob Epstein's huge, angular angel over Oscar Wilde's grave was a place of particular jollity and celebration. Oscar's last three years were spent as a bankrupt in Paris. I wondered what he would have made of the lipstick kisses on his tomb or the beaming male couple who posed hand-in-hand in front of it for a photo.

But at the top of the cemetery, as we neared the wall where the last Communards were shot, I stopped taking photos. This the part of the cemetery which reminds strollers of the past inhumanities. At first I hastened to see the spectacular sculptures but then I realised they commemorated the people who had been denounced, rounded up and deported to concentration and extermination camps. Underneath the romance of "abroad" there lies, almost always, the barbarism of the past which calls to mind the barbarism of today. I was shaken but wanted to recapture the holiday mood.

As we walked in the courtyard of the vast, domed crematorium, I tried to sweep aside thoughts of other crematorium chimneys and focus on the rows of little boxes in which ashes were stored. We found Stephane Grappelli and Georges Perec - but it was hard to see any relation between their brilliance and the simple inscriptions. By then it was past 5, and the cemetery was due to close at 6. We decided to make some last searches.

We saw Melies and then set out in search of Brunhoff, inspired by Katie's love of the Babar books. But the tomb, belonging to the Brunhoff family, was a disappointment. There were absolutely no elephants. We made our way back to the cemetery's main entrance.

It was 10 to 6 and chucking out time at the cemetery. An attendant sped past us on a motorbike, shouting at everyone to get out. The gardiens at the gates vigorously urged everyone to leave. We took their advice and headed out in search of a bar.

Friday, 17 April 2009

With the dead

I arrived early at the cemetery. I'd planned this in advance. I wanted to wander round alone.

I wasn't there to grieve but as a tourist. For years I'd planned to visit Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris and I'd finally arranged to do so. I was going to wander round with two younger friends but it was a sunny day and I'd heard there was lots to see. I got there an hour before them.

Pere Lachaise is a tourist attraction but it's still used for new burials and cremations. Families who bought their plots in perpetuity, as attested by numbers on the monuments, continue to use them and my first walk took me past families tending graves and watering flowers. (There are taps provided where visitors can fill jugs.)

I had expected to experience gloom in Pere Lachaise - a sense of being surrounded by the dead. Homer calls them "the silent majority" but they didn't crowd in on me. The monuments, often like small houses with doors that could open or stand sternly locked, got in the way of the people they housed. The tomb of Heloise and Abelard - the first tourist attraction of Pere Lachaise, reuniting the lovers on a stone bed beneath a Gothic canopy - shows them so monumentally calm that it's hard to associate the peaceful figures with the messiness of their lives and emotions. I was pleased to see the tomb surrounded by scaffolding; that and the clustering tourists was the nearest I reached to an evocation of mediaeval Paris. It was a slight disappointment. I read Helen Waddell's novel about Abelard in my teens and moved on through her translations to enjoy mediaeval Latin poems - my classics teacher was distressed at my vulgar enjoyment of Latin poetry that rhymed.

I'd been told Pere Lachaise was big but hadn't realised quite how large it was. I thought I knew about large cemeteries having wandered through Highgate a few times as a child - my aunt lived nearby. I was glad I'd purchased a map showing the locations of the famous dead for 2 euros. This showed me that Jim Morrison was relatively near Heloise and Abelard so I walked in his direction, determined to get photos for my son, who sometimes wears a Doors T-shirt. It was easy enough to find the grave as sightseers - all younger than me - were crowded around, gazing at the simple polished inscription, the photos and bouquets. As I watched, one young man vaulted over the rail to get close to the grave. All at once, a uniformed French caretaker, who had been watching the scene, moved in to order him away. I realised that there were at least three guards on this grave - the only ones I saw anywhere in the cemetery before chucking-out time.

I waited my turn and got close enough to take my photos. Then I headed away in search of Chopin, whose tomb with numerous floral tributes, was next to the neglected splendours of Cherubini. Close to them both was a ginger cat, purring as he slept on a jacket. There were flowers around him too as well as bowls of water and cat biscuits. But I had little time to talk to the sleeping cat - it was time to walk back to the entrance to meet my friends.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Il ya du shopping dans l'air

There's always shopping to do, even in France. Apart from postcards and small gifts, I like to bring a few things back: different mixes of herbs and spices, a couple of bottles of wine, Claire Fontaine stationery (the kind with small squares). Coming across these later, I remember that I've had a holiday.

I joined Jana on her Saturday shopping expedition. We began with a shopping centre I hadn't visited before. It was difficult to reach from the bus - evidently not planned for pedestrians - but Jana led me confidently across roads and up the long, steep staircase to the entrance. I wasn't sure what I thought of the outsize, cartoon-style plastic flowers beside the steps - Jana told me they were the shopping centre's logo - but I liked the large, open-air courtyard. One of the things I particularly dislike about shopping centres is the way they are sealed off from sky. I like to experience the weather and know if it's dark or light outside. I began to enjoy the centre although it wasn't quite warm enough for us to sit and lunch in the open air. But there was something strange about the experience I couldn't identify - something beyond the sunshine and Frenchness of it all.

Another bus ride took us to a more conventional shopping centre - one I knew well. We separated for a while and I wandered alone round Carrefour, in search of stationery. Then I sat outside, waiting for Jana and watching the shoppers. Many achieve a confident elegance that made me feel dowdily insecure.

But something else caught my attention - and I realised what was strange about shopping in France. There were a couple of closed shops but these were being transformed by painters and carpenters. I knew that Franch prices had gone up - the changed exchange rate made me acutely aware of the need to economise - but there was no sign of the catastrophe that has hit the British midlands. It looks as though shops were surviving.

It's hard to make a comparison. I was in a Paris suburb, not Leicester, Derby or Nottingham. But, while central London seems unaffected, the London suburbs I know are beginning to sprout "to let" signs and vacant shop windows. So far as I could tell, the familiar ghost towns are a British phenomenon. While England sees projects for expansion bodged, delayed and cancelled - causing all kinds of private distress and disaster - France seems to keep going with its familiar mix of big chains and small, family-run businesses.

I've probably missed evidence of poverty in France. There are still homeless people and beggars, though there doesn't seem to be a great increase in their numbers. There are always people struggling to make ends meet. But perhaps the French never built their economy on reckless shopping for luxury goods in the way the British did. Purchases in France always seemed more considered - and often based on an assessment of quality rather than an urgent desire to possess. Perhaps the French have been helped by their concern for small, local businesses - or perhaps they didn't have the same enthusiasm for an economy built on debt. I'd like to think that they learnt from Zola's analysis of consumerism in Au Bonheur des Dames. But that's unlikely. Readers and critics today focus on the sexual aspects of text rather than their economic arguments. Few people notice that Rossetti's powerful Goblin Market explores the dangers of shopping as well as sex.

Friday, 10 April 2009


It was time for a holiday. Unfortunately I was still at work. Tired from a lingering virus, I started the countdown: two weeks till I get away, one week, five days, two days. And that's when the button flew off my favourite shoes.

I found the button and re-attached it as firmly as I could with needle and thread. That button needed to be in place. I'd planned a trip to Paris which didn't involve limping barefoot on the Metro. But I knew my sewing wouldn't hold. The next day I put on different, inferior shoes and headed to the Timpson's nearest my office.

Timpson's staff have been helpful in the past. They've done quick repairs when catastrophes occurred on my way to work. But they looked sadly at the button and told me it couldn't be done - that my emergency sewing was the best that could be achieved.

That's when I remembered the local cobbler. Every so often I come across a cobbler who is a real craftsman - who actually loves shoes. Years ago, when I lived and worked in London, there was an Italian who occupied a small basement workshop. He praised well-made shoes, scolded his customers gently for unnecessary damage and worked on repairs slowly and with love. There was a temporary disaster when he was rushed to hospital and for weeks the shoes he loved languished on shelves and workbenches while customers gazed anxiously at the notice on his door. He was probably the best cobbler in the whole of London - and one of the cheapest.

It was evident that my shoes needed the attention of a serious cobbler. Luckily I know where to find one. He occupies a small concrete building with corregated metal roof - probably a temporary wartime structure. There's a model of a cobbler in the window. He's the best cobbler I know - last year he came to my rescue by repairing a sword-bag. He hadn't seen a sword-bag before but, once I explained how I carried my swords, he realised what was needed and came up with a solution. I had to delay my departure for work to take in my shoes but it was worth it.

"Timpson's said it couldn't be done," I told him, hoping to interest him in the problem. I don't think it needed that incentive. The cobbler saw my shoes as a problem to be solved. "Wrong type of glue," he said, easing a knife into the point where the button was fastened. Evidently he could solve the problem. He looked for pieces of elastic to reconnect the button and explained how he could make it secure with two stitches which wouldn't show when the shoe was fastened. There were two or three options and he would work out which was the best.

Then there was the problem of collection. "You could pick them up tomorrow morning," he said. I explained that I was going to Paris then, and hoped to wear my shoes. "3.30 today?" he offered. I looked doubtful, remembering a work meeting. "I mightn't be able to do it," I explained. "I don't think I can get here before 4.30." He looked sympathetic. "I was planning to close early - but I'll wait till you get in."

In the end my meeting was brief and I reached the cobbler's shop just after 3.30. The shoes had been mended perfectly and were as comfortable as ever. It must have been a tricky job and I was prepared to pay accordingly. But the charge - for expertise, work and materials - was £5.49. I'll be back.