Category Archives: Politics

Prague: City of a Thousand Photo Opportunities

 

Just a couple of in-spiring towers.
Charles Bridge, somewhere near sunset.
 
My preferred method of exploring a city is to start walking and only change direction whenever I see something more interesting down another street. Were I to try that in Prague, I would end up walking in spirals, or in an endlessly zig zag pattern. In Prague, there’s always something more interesting around the corner. This is a city that’s as close as any I’ve seen to the clichéd fantasy medieval metropolis.

There are the endlessly winding cobbled streets, with tiled rooftops packed so tightly overhead that guilds of thieves could conduct entire wars up there with no one below being any the wiser, save for the occasional corpse-cobble impact incident. There’s a town hall with an overly ornate astronomical clock, complete with clockwork mannequins. (The story goes that the designer was blinded once he finished so he wouldn’t go on to make a better one.)

 

The mannequin show is fun, but surprisingly minimalist.
Other clocks are available, and probably easier to read.
 
There are legends and stories galore surrounding the city, from poor old Jan Hus, who put too much trust in princes, to the golem that once stalked the Jewish quarter. Best of all, there’s the Defenestration of Prague, which manages to use one of my favourite words in its title. (Seriously – how much more fun is it to say “defenestration” than “thrown out of a window”?)

There’s a centuries-old bridge lined with statues of saints and divinities, across a river that’s home to an entire flotilla of swans. There’s not one but two hilltop citadels overlooking the city. Prasky Hrad, with its Gormenghast-like scale and complexity, and the over-the-top gothicness of St. Vitus’s Cathedral, gets all the press, but I’m partial to the more ancient Vyšehrad, which is mostly a shell these days, but is lovely to wander through and offers great views of the Vlatva River and Prague itself.

 

And this is the commanding view the rulers thought they could do better than.
The Vlatva, looking south from Vyšehrad.
 
There’s even a hill hard by the city that’s swathed in an encroaching forest and hides not only a monastery with an ancient library but also a wizard’s tower that peeks through the treetops and has a labyrinth at its base.

All right, so the tower is a copy of the Eiffel Tower and the labyrinth is a maze of mirrors, but wizards are noted for their lack of originality. I doubt the average medieval inhabitant of Prague would have quibbled over the details before reaching for the nearest pitchfork and joining the local mob.

It’s a city for losing yourself in, then, as I’ve done for the past few days, the high point of which was when I found a store selling replica Viking arms and armour. For a good five minutes, I considered attiring myself in a manner befitting a Norse adventurer and taking ship down the Danube to the Black Sea and seeking service as a Varangian Guard in Miklagard/Constantinople.

Sadly, dreams of adventure and fantastic vistas founder when they hit the hard rocks of reality. Even as I’m enjoying my travels throughout Europe, a group of far more desperate travellers are trying to head in the opposite direction. The “tide” of refugees entering Europe is much in the news at the moment, often to heartbreaking effect, and while I’m currently on my way to Vienna, my plan is to be in Budapest, the current flashpoint of the crisis, in three days.

That may change, but even if it doesn’t, it forces me to think about why I’m travelling – this experience of cities and nations I’ve never been to before. How much worth does my indulgence hold against the desperate need of others, exemplified in the huddled form of a small boy washed up on a lonely beach? Are they comparable? Or even relatable? And what can I do?

I only have the beginnings of answers for any of those questions. I doubt that one traveller can make much of a difference, or learn everything he’d need to in the space of the two weeks I have remaining. The one thing I do know is that if I close my eyes, I’ll learn nothing. So I’ll keep travelling and see what answers I can find.

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The Weight of History

 

in the distance you can see the chimneys that are all that remains of barrack upon barrack.
The beautiful weather added a surreal edge to the experience.
 
Auschwitz exerts a gravity of its own. You can travel to Kraków without visiting it, but you’ll remain aware of it, the many signs advertising tours tugging at you, reminding you of the black hole of history, lurking just beyond the horizon.

A friend of mine told me, when I mentioned that I intended to visit the concentration camp, that they couldn’t bear to do so. I can understand that. I’m not the most sensitive person, but even I can’t help but feel unease at the incomprehensible nature of what happened there. Still, I wanted to go, to be part of the effort to remember and not forget, and so I did.

(Apologies is some of the below is upsetting.)

That the visit was on the warmest, sunniest day I’d experienced in years was somewhat incongruous. In fact, the whole start of the tour, around the original Auschwitz I camp, felt a little off at first. To sanitised, too carefully restored and preserved, too occupied by tour groups. I was beginning to wonder if I was missing something. Then we reached the room full of human hair.

In one of the restored barracks buildings, fully half of a long room was taken up by a mass of human hair, taken from the scalps of the dead, with traces of Zyklon B still detectable when the Soviets liberated the camp. In further rooms were the dead’s belongings: eyeglasses, coats, suitcases with names written on them, shoes, children’s shoes. As much as anything else, the weight of these objects lay in the fact that they were the only remaining scraps of evidence that the Nazis hadn’t gotten around to destroying or using

We had been meant to see these first – a long queue meant that our guide took us around those more sanitised buildings first. Like some of the concentration camp victims, I was lulled into a false sense of security, feeling that seventy years since the camp was liberated had deprived it of its power to shock. Preserved behind glass though it may be, it still reaches out.

A mile or two down the road from Auschwitz I is Auchwitz-Birkenau. Dreadful as it was, Auschwitz I was in effect a trial run – Auschwitz-Birkenau is an order of magnitude larger and was the place that the Nazis applied industrialised methods and an inhuman level of detachment to their “final solution.” Here, though they tried to burn and demolish the traces of what they’d done, can still be seen the ruins of the crematoria and the shells of the barracks that housed the dying and the doomed.

Auschwitz I retains the indelible image of all that the Nazis took from their victims. Auschwitz-Birkenau demonstrates the scale to which they brought that collective sin. Moreover, it’s the decaying nature of Auschwitz-Birkenau that lends a final reminder of reality: this is not a preserved exhibit in a museum. This is a place where more than a million people were murdered. It needs to be remembered and I’m glad I visited, though that visit will stay with me.

If there was one thing that I missed, it was some sense of why this happened. Auschwitz preserved the “how,” but it makes less effort at showing how a nation can slide so irrevocably into horror. How centuries of looking down on Jews and other “others” curdled into contempt and hatred. How political leaders could take that hatred and bind it to a “solution” that led step by step to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are convulsed with fear of immigrants, and when our politicians are advocating ever more draconian measures to deal with this problem, we need to remember where that path leads. We already have them in camps, after all. We are hearing calls for them to work for their keep, to earn the right to live among their betters. It’s a reasonable proposal, isn’t it? It always is, at the start.

A Referendum on Ireland

I hope you remembered to register to vote.
Kind of giving away the side of the fence I’m, but please read on…

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

Next Friday, the people of Ireland go to the polls in a referendum to add the above sentence to the constitutional definition of marriage.* Ireland seems to hold a referendum every few years, far more often than its neighbour, the U.K., mostly because a referendum is the only way in which amendments can be made to the nation’s constitution.

In this way, referenda have come to serve as an important marker of Ireland’s sense of itself and how that sense of itself has changed over the less-than-a-century in which the country has existed. That the marriage referendum is not only being put to the people but appears to have broad popular support is a marker in and of itself—it was only in 1993 that homosexual relationships were decriminalised, and only in 1996 that the constitution was altered to remove a prohibition on divorce.

The most recent polls suggest that voters in favour of expanding marriage rights are in the majority by two-to-one over voters opposing the change, with as many as a quarter of voters undecided. This might suggest a foregone conclusion, but as the recent U.K. elections showed, it’s unwise to trust polls too much. Voters have a tendency to be cautious of change, especially when that change brings uncertainty.

This referendum campaign has also been notable for its vitriol on both sides.** Posters have been defaced and torn down, and social media has become a battlezone between camps who have set out their positions and are prepared to think the absolute worst of anyone who disagrees with them. There are more sensible, rational voices to be heard on both sides, but they’ve been getting drowned out in the noise. The traditional media doesn’t help much either—entertainment sells, and a calm discussion of the points is never going to attract as many viewers as a shouting match.

For myself, I intend to vote yes in the referendum. Why? I’m not gay, but I believe that I deserve the same rights as everyone else. I shouldn’t be privileged with rights because of who I am any more than I should be denied them by the same.

By far the strongest voices on the No side come from a conservative Catholic background. To anyone familiar with Irish history, this won’t come as much of a surprise. What’s more notable is that the church itself has taken a back seat to these campaigning groups—the scandals of recent years have damaged the church’s moral standing, perhaps irreparably. Those who believe strongly that Catholic morality, as practiced in Ireland since its founding, ought to be the guiding light for the nation, have had to get out ahead of a church that advises a No vote but isn’t willing to shout about it.

Yet behind all of the shouting, there’s an interesting split developing in the church itself, between dogma and conscience. Whereas the hierarchy of the church in Ireland have hewn to the party line that marriage is a sacred institution***, many voices closer to the people that make up the church have dissented. The most famous is Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of the Focus Ireland charity, who has described entitling gay people to marry as a “civil right and a human right.”

Next Friday’s vote, whether yes or no, would change Ireland overnight. That change has been happening for decades, and will continue to happen for decades yet. Hopefully, it will never stop changing. Change can be frightening, especially for those who have known only one truth all their lives and have been told that everything different is false, dangerous or the just the first step towards chaos and damnation. Yet human beings have been dealing with change, for better or worse, for as long as we’ve existed. We’re good at it. And I believe that a yes vote would show that in Ireland we’re getting better.

 

*There’s also a vote on whether to lower the age requirement for the Presidency of Ireland to 21, but that has been seriously overshadowed by the debate over the marriage referendum.

**Although perhaps not that notable. As Joseph Cummins points out in Anything For a Vote, the idea that the past was an era of genteel political debate is a fallacy. If anything, campaigners in centuries past were even more likely to be vitriolic to the point of slander and abuse.

***The history of marriage and the church and the co-opting of the former by the latter is too long to go into, but suffice it to say that marriage has been around for a lot longer than the church, and in far more forms than the church recognises.

Paisley and Legacy

That Paisley documentary, should you wish to delve into his mind.

So Ian Paisley is dead, as of a few days ago. I’m no more inclined to dance on his grave than I am to shed a tear at his passing, but the injunction not to speak ill of the dead mostly exists to preserve the feelings of the deceased’s loved ones, none of whom I know, nor are they ever likely to pay heed to anything I say. So some recollections might be in order.

When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley was a constant presence. Back then he was a fringe character, albeit the most prominent one of his kind. To a child old enough to pay attention to the news but not old enough to understand the tangled truths and lies at the heart of the Northern Irish situation, there was something immediately appealing about this shouty man, spouting certainties at the top of his lungs wherever the lines between communities at war were in danger of becoming blurred.

The more understanding I gained, the more the limitations of his worldview became evident. Paisley was a complex man, even an exceptionally intelligent one, but those complexities were hammered flat by his fundamentalist worldview. Those he was close to remember him as warm, cordial figure, but one suspects that such warmth only extended to those who existed as human beings in his own eyes. Someone who could say that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” had placed strict limits on his empathy.

In this, he was heir to centuries of anti-Catholic, biblical tradition arising from his Ulster Scots background, owning no authority save that of the bible. This is a man, after all, who founded his own church and his own political party. The common joke back in the Troubles was that Paisley had finally consented to a power-sharing agreement: with God. His famous heckling of Pope John Paul II suggested that he didn’t see him so much as a man as he did a figure of mythic significance, one that he was locked in war with.

All the stranger then that he executed an almost complete volte-face in his latter days. From being the most intransigent figure of the Troubles, he (once his party were in a position to take power) suddenly became open not just to power sharing, but to power-sharing with Sinn Fein, which he was more apt to call Sinn Fein/IRA. Which is either a breathtaking acceptance of the limitations of the principles he’d adhered to for decades, or an act of equally breathtaking hypocrisy.

That there were plenty willing to take the latter view may be seen in the fact that both his church and his party eventually rejected him. The former as soon as he took up that leadership role, the latter as soon as their grip on the reins of power was firm enough that they could afford to jettison their non-political anachronism of a founder.

As much as the Unionists may have had to hold their nose on going into government with Sinn Fein though, the same may have been true in reverse. His Damascene conversion on the road to government notwithstanding, Paisley was as responsible as anyone for generating the atmosphere of hatred and suspicion that drove the Troubles through three decades of murder. He’s gone to his grave with blood on his hands and no more willing or able to admit his culpability than Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams have ever been.

His decision, in what turned out to be his last year, to participate in a tell-all documentary, stands now as a final preacher’s performance, a spouting of the truth as he saw it from the mountaintop. Perhaps even to make clear that the twists and turns of his own life could be looked back upon as a straight road, laid out according to his principles. If so, there were many lives bulldozed to make way for it.

Negotiating a Breakup

 

The Saltire really did bring out the best in those crusader crosses.
Somehow it all seems a lot less colourful now…

All of a sudden, with under two weeks to go, the referendum on Scottish independence is making a lot of people nervous. Whereas its failure was previously treated as a foregone conclusion, with the media enjoying the raised voices and ridiculousness of it all, it’s now looking too close to call. So has it really come to this? Is the United Kingdom going to be split along Hadrian’s Wall?*

Well yes, probably. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The United Kingdom has been in a state of slow dissolution for a century and more. The colonies of the Empire headed for the exit one by one over many decades. The Irish had to kick and punch their way into doing the same, the results of which can still be seen in Northern Ireland. The Welsh? Well, they were first in, and they’ll probably be last out too. Feel sorry for them.

The Scots only joined in the first place because they were bribed with the crown of England. Not that it was a particularly easy unification, and indeed it took most of a century to sort out the details. (Ireland didn’t get roped in fully for nearly another century, and that happened at least partly as a result of rebellious efforts to head in the other direction.) In Scotland, the English are still the Auld Enemy, and while it can hardly be argued that Scotland hasn’t benefited through its part in the British-led Industrial Revolution and all that followed, the fact is that it has always been an unbalanced partnership.

For all that, this should have been a fairly straightforward vote. Countries don’t tend to break up for no real reason, especially not First World countries with several centuries of successful history behind them. So how has it come to this?

Well, the United Kingdom has, at the moment, the misfortune to be led by one of the most insular cliques of public school-educated toffs in many a long year. Hardly the kind of thing to appeal to the provincials. Not that the minor parties are notably better. Together, they’ve driven a “No Campaign” of staggering ineptitude, ricocheting between platitudes, hypothetical doomsday scenarios and hectoring condescension. Hell, even calling it a No Campaign was probably a bad idea. They never managed to move the media needle on that piece of negative campaigning, no matter how much they promoted the insipid “Better Together” tagline.

Would Scotland be better off independent? I don’t know, but cutting themselves off from the rest of the U.K. is not a risk-free move. Economically and politically, Edinburgh’s heft is far short of London’s. Culturally too. Though the calculus of the situation looks tougher to work out further down the line. The cussedness of the Scots suggests that if anyone can deal with the problems of independence and build themselves back up, it’s them.

As a native of Northern Ireland now living in the non-British-aligned South, the eventual outcome doesn’t hold a huge amount of immediate impact for me. Not that the Northern Irish aren’t involved at all. In fact, there a lot of resonances at play for the North. The Unionist movement up there is largely the legacy of Scottish planters. The Nationalist movement has been working on getting out of the U.K. for decades now. A shame it took Sinn Fein three decades and thousands of deaths to figure out that politics and P.R. are a much better way of getting what they want.

A “Yes” vote on September 18th might cut Scotland free of the U.K., but the implications will rattle along for years, and the U.K. is a more complicated place than a quickie divorce can mend. The Scots will make their mind up one way or another, but both they and the English will have to work on being either neighbours or partners giving it one more shot.

*Okay, not exactly along Hadrian’s Wall, but close enough.

A New Beginning

It’s been way too long since I wrote in this blog. My writings have rarely been regular, but recent developments workwise have suppressed the writing impulse to the point where nothing has been appearing for several months. This is clearly unacceptable. So consider this a manifesto for getting back on track.

When I first set up this blog, it was as a receptacle for stray thoughts as I made my way eastwards around the world. (You can go all the way back and check it out if you like.) I also adorned it with some earlier blogging efforts and sprinkled a few of my more favoured attempts at fiction across the top. Further down the line, I began to throw a series of reviews at it, mostly books, cinema and games. Well, I’m still enjoying all of those, but the reviews have dwindled to nothing.

Along the way, there have also been moments of whimsy, political opinions and reflections on the current course of my life. All of this should provide plenty of material to keep the blog mill spinning. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it hasn’t. I still enjoy writing, it’s just that the moments where it previously fitted into my schedule have been shuffled around, and an attempt needs to be made to nail them down again.

There’s plenty to be said for commenting on the state of the world. Politics and the media are in no less surreal a state than they have been for the past few years. The Ferguson affair in the U.S. and the ISIS rearrangement of borders and peoples in the Middle East are raising hackles and some of the weirder excesses of both participants and commentators.

On a more personal level, my reading habit is finally getting back in gear after a few months (hell, call it a year and a bit) where it was hard to find time to fit reading into the rest of my life. Right now I’m rereading Julian May’s “Galactic Milieu” trilogy, having already raced through her “Saga of the Exiles.” May’s one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read, and the Saga of the Exiles would make a great TV miniseries in the mode of Game of Thrones. So add that to biweekly cinema excursions courtesy of a Meetup.com group and some PC and iOS game experiments (both good and bad), and there should be plenty of reviews emerging in the near future too.

Lastly, and most excitingly (for me at least), I’m finally planning to head off on a holiday lasting longer than a week. It’s been over two years at this stage, and it’s more than long overdue. The destination is Greece, as longstanding a travel goal as I have, and the itinerary is intended to take in as much beautiful scenery and sites of historical interest as the cradle of western civilisation has to offer.

So look for some brand new travel diaries coming towards the end of September. In the interim, I’ll try and keep the home fires burning by dropping the odd opinion, review and unusual fact into the hopper for general distribution. Possibly not tomorrow’s cinematic outing though. I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about The Expendables 3.

Closing Down Dissent. Or Satire. Or Anything, Really…

I'm not really trying here, am I?
Shakespeare says NO! (via Wikipedia)

Ah, the joys of following the Northern Ireland news. Every so often, you get served up the kind of insanity that only the combination of parochial religious zealotry and a genuine 17th-century mindset can provide.

This week, it seems that the DUP councillors in Newtownabbey, evidently nostalgic for the days of the Life of Brian controversy, elected to force a shutdown of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), just a week before performance time. Because, hey, there’s nothing more important going on in Northern Ireland than a slapstick play that might put a few religious noses out of joint.

Let’s just clarify here: this is the Reduced Shakespeare Company that has been in existence for three decades and has been a fixture on the London theatre scene for much of that time. This is a show that has been around for nearly 20 years, winning awards, being performed around the world in numerous languages. And this is the DUP councillors standing up en masse and doing their best to bully the local arts board into shutting it down without a vote.

It would be funny if it weren’t so predictable. The combination of political power with the certainty of religious faith brings tends to results in the shutdown of dissenting points of view. Underdog sects and religions can favour freedom of conscience, but history shows that when the boot’s on the other foot, attitudes change. After all, when you’re in possession of the ultimate truth, isn’t it a public good if that’s the only truth that’s going to get promoted?

The trend towards secular government is one that took a long time to hit Ireland, and arguably it still hasn’t hit the North. Everywhere else, there has been pushback, in the form of Texas creationists altering school textbooks, Islamist efforts to marginalise secular Turkish youth, or a UKIP councillor linking gay marriage to recent floods. In Northern Ireland, the linkage between religion and the sectarian divide and the fact that parties from either extreme hold the whip hand means that it’s not so much pushback as an effort to hold onto power (something the Unionists have been doing for decades).

There’s no indication that anyone involved in cancelling the play had actually seen it, or had any interest in seeing it. Whether their chief interest was in “defending Christian values”, grandstanding for a few more votes or simply throwing their weight around, they both overstepped the mark in terms of their electoral mandate and completely undershot in terms of doing something of benefit for the people of Newtownabbey.