Tearing down statues

Statues have an enduring symbolism, as the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, and the fuss over each new occupant, frequently reminds us.

In this case we’re talking about removing a statue.

There’s a Telegraph headline Saturday 19th December, ‘Politically-correct universities are killing free speech.’ An exaggeration, but it focuses attention on a real issue. ‘Universities’ are not killing free speech, but an increasing number of students are attempting to limit debate by, for example, banning speakers who do not share their views. A dangerous development, and I’m with the Telegraph all the way on this.

Students are now taking exception to statuesto the dead as well as the living. They’re symbols of an oppressive past and we’ve recently seen the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes (arch-imperialist) at the University of Cape Town. Pressure is now being put on an Oxford college, Oriel, to remove a statue of Rhodes on a building (funded by a legacy from Rhodes) which fronts the High Street. The fact that most of Oxford was until very recently completely unaware of the statue’s existence is incidental.

There are arguments against the statue – Rhodes is indeed a symbol of colonial past, but there’s a powerful counter-argument that symbols, whether oppressive, controversial, militaristic, pacifist – whether statues, paintings, buildings – are important. We don’t want to sanitise our past, or interpret it according to the dictates of the present. (A friend of mine suggests another argument for its removal  – it is very ugly.)

Oriel are well aware of the arguments on both sides, and will be launching a listening exercise before deciding the statue’s fate.

They will have been surprised to read Saturday’s Telegraph leaders which asserted: ‘Shockingly college dons back the idea.’ (Maybe some do but the leader implies it is college policy.) The Telegraph’s front-page story also asserts that the college’s ‘plans’ have been ‘derailed’ by the realisation that the statue is on a listed building, and its removal requires planning permission. That the college was well aware of the planning issue is clear from the statement it issued last Thursday: the Telegraph article is the Saturday morning following.

There’s also an article on the leader page by Daniel Hannan, who read history at the college, as indeed I did a few years before him. He writes: ‘Oriel has rushed out a statement to the effect that it is talking to planning authorities about removing the effigy because ‘it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of…colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents’.

The college’s statement was carefully considered, and in contrast to Hannan’s article which reads as if it was rushed out to meet a deadline. Oriel we must remember is in the real world, attracting and extending a welcome to students from all corners of the globe.  As it argues in its statement, [the actions] ‘we are announcing today demonstrate our continuing commitment to being at the forefront of the drive to make Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds, and to address directly the complex history of colonialism and its consequences.’

All terribly politically correct, but it’s risky territory these days, when it’s all about attracting students and funding, if you don’t listen to the clamour on streets and social media.

Reaching agreements …

We’ve seen a positive outcome to the climate change talks, and now an agreement at the UN in the Security Council for a peace plan for Syria. It’s not just the agreements themselves but the willingness to argue and discuss and actually reach agreements that I find encouraging. Both are under the auspices of the UN. And both have come about because of the engagement of all parties. China now fully recognises the urgency of measures to combat rising CO2 emissions, so too the US administration, if not the coalheads behind the American far-right in Congress. And Russia is now fully engaged in the Syria peace process, seen by some in the West a few weeks ago as a backward step, but as an interested party committed to the support of the Assad regime, with a naval base at Tartus in Syria, essential if a peace process was to move forward.

One reason for the failure of Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Putin was the fact that it was one-sided. Putin has now established himself, as he’s wanted all along, as an ‘equal’ partner. 2003 the US and UK tried to call the tune, and that can’t be the way forward anymore. We don’t have a democratic Russia, as we all hoped for after the fall of the Soviet regime, but we do have a government with whom we can deal and – possibly -reach agreement at a global level. We can establish areas of vital common interest and work out from there. Likewise with China: combating climate change has potential for being a major area of cooperation between China and the West. We can’t as yet resolve issues surrounding China’s imperial ambitions in the South China Sea, but working together in one area can only improve the prospects of doing so in others.

And there are serious – fundamental- issues of human rights. We have Saudi Arabia as an ‘ally’, and that’s pretty cynical in the scheme of thing. But we have to work from where we are. And what conflict tells us is that the big stick never works. So if we have to work with the likes of Putin, best to get on with it. Pragmatism is the best ally of idealism.

Another lesson – the importance of bodies such as the UN, above all the UN, under whose auspices the nations of the world can come together, and argue, and find common ground. Doing exactly what it was set up to do.

I’d put the European Community in the same category. What’s remarkable is that countries are working together, at a European – and a global level. War shattered Europe st  twice in the 20th century, and European institutions over the last sixty years have  cemented peace in a quite remarkable way. Walking away from the EU would be lunacy. Putting all our energies into reforming it so that it is and is seen to be an institution working for people at all levels is the only way forward.

And that requires strong leadership. Whether it’s Obama and Kerry, Putin and Sergei Lavrov, Hollande and Fabius, who acted as convenor at the the Paris talks – presidents and foreign ministers, the recognition of the interests of each of the parties involved is essential if common ground is to be established and agreements achieved.

This may be stating the obvious – but it’s why were getting agreements now, and we didn’t before.

A rose in winter, a field in Cheshire and a radio universe

A woodpecker drilling in a local garden, a single rose standing tall in a rose garden, and a grey and misty dawn over the river, on this absurdly warm December day. Daffodils are in flower they tell me, but not here. There are I hope snows to come, and chill sunsets and frosty dawns.

Last night the sun set behind Jodrell Bank – in a BBC4 TV programme celebrating the radio telescope and Bernard Lovell, its legendary director. I drive past it whenever I’m heading to the family home in north Cheshire, along a stretch of road between Chelford and Twemlow. The 250ft high bowl and its skeleton frame tower high above. It’s Cheshire farming country, as it was when I cycled out there as a teenager, and stood in awe – little has changed. The same houses, the same brick, the open fields and woodland brakes. And this the telescope that tracked Russian rockets in the Cold War, against Lovell’s better instincts, and explored the radio universe for evidence of the big bang, played a part in the discovery of pulsars (a regular pulse instead of static) and continues to this day to explore the far reaches of the universe. Dark matter isn’t beyond its gaze, though multiverses remain the province of the mathematicians.

I wanted to be an astrophysicist until I learnt it wasn’t enough to be simply numerate. Long equations floored me. (But still fascinate.) But Jodrell Bank against a sunset sky, or rising up dark in the night, a shadow which might have come out of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – that still amazes. Jodrell Bank is home territory, as the stars and the wide universe were home for me, in my back garden as a 12-year-old, staring up each night, with my star charts.

Lovell was brought up a Methodist, and never lost his sense of wonder, or his sense of the limits of scientific knowledge. He also captained Chelford cricket club. What more could you ask of a man.



Camino day by day

Text messages home (just a little edited!) Wednesday 30 September –  Tuesday 26 October 2015

[St Jean Pied de Port – Logrono walked 19th-27th June]

30 Sept   Arrived safely (in Logrono), hotel fine but bed v short…. Weather forecast going downhill – Fri and Sun don’t look good. Earlier today in Bilbao – 25 degrees at 8pm! Still summer – just!

1 Oct   Wonderful day for walking but a groin strain hasn’t helped – and it’s been a long long day. But the sun has shone brilliantly all day, and the wind blowing an almost gale. Friendly folk but no more than a few pathway chats. And the hostel (Najera) – all others full – crammed with beds and people! So a mixed day – and there’s rain to come tomorrow. Might just snug up in the next town in a hotel! BUT I’m on my way – and that’s what matters!

2 Oct   Off at 7.45 arrived Santo Domingo de la Calzada 12.15, bright start, shower just after I arrived. Time now to recover! My bocadillo de jamon and cerveza have just arrived. Better hostel – last night 90 crammed in one room!

Carlos [small teddy bear, gift from Hazel] hid, like me he didn’t like the snoring both sides of me… Daytime he’s there peeking out – I see you’ve got a hitchhiker one guy said….

3 Oct   Lovely sunrise this morning above Santo Domingo. Stomped along well all morning, at Belorado by 12.15, been chilling out, lunching, talking, writing … Only problem is – left my adaptor behind in the dormitory gloom this morning –  should have enough charge to see me through to shops in Burgos, we’ll see!

4 Oct  Bit of a miz day! Crosswinds and rain and we’re up at 3000 ft. In the oak forests it’s sheltered and rather lovely but in the open it’s a bit wildcats poncho v useful.

… ‘wildcats’? …. should read ‘wild and’! Carlos sought shelter in his rucksack pocket all day. San Juan de Ortega bleak so walked on to Ages, which is a little less bleak but nowt to do. I’m walking well, so that’s good. Tomorrow Burgos, and will be warmer! Glad I missed the rugby! [England beaten by Australia]

5 Oct   Arrived in Burgos about 1pm, wet bedraggled and windswept, as was everyone else! Now in search of a USB lead for my phone …

6 Oct   All the way to Hontanas today, with a detour to see a monastery, about 21 miles, much of it on the high meseta, up to 3000ft. Strong headwind but great when the sun took over late morning. In fact a brilliant day! Hontanas a lovely village, and a great little albergue. Supper at 7!

7 Oct  18 miles, something like that. Feet said – no further! Now in Boadilla – think that’s it! – texting in the sun cos it’s too cold everywhere else. There is a lounge with a heater… But this is Spain!! Walking over the meseta amazing, big landscapes and big skies, mostly sunny. Maybe warmer weather is on its way… Great hostel, inc garden, cafe, except for bunks which are muy basico!

8  Oct   Wonderful day walking in big landscapes, and several wonderful churches. But cold out of the sun – reminded me of the high Andes! Now in Carrion, which has churches but no albergues with their own cafe/restaurants, and they’ve been great ways of meeting people. Now done nine days (eight walking, but I’ve gained a day on my schedule), almost 1/2 way if you count my days in June!

9 Oct   Hard walking across endless hedgeless fields, big horizons, mountains far to the north. Bitterly cold but moon, Venus and Jupiter beautiful in the predawn sky… Got here at 1.30  after lunch – bocadillo de chorizo in a nearby village. ‘Here’ is Terradillos de los Templarios, halfway point on the Camino Frances! A black cat on the Camino today, walking the wrong way – all it wanted was attention, not one of your scraggy anthropophobic (good word that) cats!

…. Anthropophobic … Spellcheck having fun! Sitting here now with Swedish, German and English friends … Sun brilliant, but weather will be going downhill a bit tomorrow. Not following the news,

so wonderfully out of touch!  Good conversation over supper – some inspiring people on the Camino.

10 Oct …. Phone call home [from Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, municipal albergue]

11 Oct   Big contrast today, after lovely friendly communal meal in Calzadilla last night. Wet morning, walking about 16 miles across rough paths in the middle of nowhere, friends Tim and Sarah keeping me company. Crazy early lunch at the Bar Elvis in Reliegos, blues and R&B and bocadillos. Lovely albergue, small, playing Enya when we arrived… but town (Mansilla de las Mullas) in Sunday shutdown, and weather cold damp and dreary. So miserable afternoon – after I’d got my clothes washed. Hard even to find a decent place for a beer! Tomorrow Leon, which should be wonderful. Will probably take an extra day. Weather wet tomorrow am, maybe Tues too, but forecast looking v good after that.

12 Oct   Chilly in Leon. Wet overnight, rain held off walking here – only just. Albergue crams in lots of people but as one of the first to arrive have a bottom bunk. Lovely people running last night’s albergue – got hugs from husband and wife on leaving! Leon cathedral wonderful – finest stained glass I’ve seen anywhere in the world – every wall has vast windows, full of colour, and three rose windows… Was planning to stay tomorrow in Leon, but weather won’t be good so think I’ll move on. Will be on my own for the first time in four days – looking forward to it! Think you have more sun and warmth than I have…

13 Oct.  3.30 and just settling in to my own room – ! – in Hospital de Orbiga. At least 24 miles by the country route from Leon, and I think I’m ahead of almost everyone else. So could choose. 15 euros. Rain? Stunning day … 5 degrees when I set off about 7.15, now mid 60s and a deep blue sky!

Hard to get warm here, and only one bar open! Also much much quieter than Leon. Main feature the wonderful bridge. Feet aching but only a short distance tomorrow, and the sun will be shining! I didn’t stay in the Parador in Leon – thought about it, but v expensive. Looked amazing in the half-light this morning! For another time?? Could you send your electric blanket over?

14 Oct   Shorter walk to Astorga, some beautiful woodland en route and the city on its hilltop, a bit like Orvieto, is impressive. Weather sunny – and chilly. But a little lonely – friends have all moved on or gone back home – so Achilles’ tendons permitting I’ll move on tomorrow rather than stay here. Still an amazing adventure! Up to 5000ft the day after tomorrow… Now more than two weeks since leaving home.

15 Oct   Will phone after Vespers at 7.  Wonderful day! [Rabanal. Sated at the Albergue Gaucelmo, run by Confraternity of St James, and v English!]

16 Oct  Wonderful walking and up to Cruz de Ferro with my friends, but since then on my own. I go faster! Much of the walk at 5000ft but now down at 2000ft and warming up – but still autumnal. Will speed up if I can [cover three days in two] – loving it but think I want to get to Santiago a bit more quickly. Rabanal yesterday was a special place. Big country! [Today Molinaseca, another municipal albergue, but beds not bunks!]

17 Oct  Wonderful day. Started over an hour before sunrise, with head torch on. Checked out a still functioning Roman cistern at 8am, in the dark! Ponferrado – light rain, by Cacabelos sun was coming out, and afternoon was walking through vineyards, hills all around, mountains beyond, blue sky and warm sun. I loved it – happiest moments yet. Bounce in my step! 20 miles…. Hope tomorrow can compare. Now to explore Villafranca del Bierzo. [Family-run Albergue Leo, best yet.] Have maybe an hour. We must try the Bierzo wines.

18 Oct  Strange but good (I think!) day. Took mountain route out of Villafranca, went slightly wrong (Pradela if it’s on your map), then all the way to O’Cebreiro. BUT drizzle turned to light rain and I’m over 4000ft and in cloud and there’s a cold wind, and O’C is a primitive stone village. So I took a room, bit basic [damp sheets], but v hot shower, and now 5pm and into my menu peregrino. Forecast tomorrow bad, but after that looking good. Max 7 maybe 6 days to Santiago. Over 20 miles and prob 4000 ft of climbing today. My feet amazingly are holding out well! … Vast plate of meat has arrived. Now for the vino.

19 Oct   I’ve just arrived in Triacastela, after walking in steady rain for 5 1/2hrs. I’m very wet but will survive!

20 Oct   A complete change, glorious weather, sky so blue could have been in the high Alps. Took a tour of the great monastery at Samos, and still walked 18 miles or so – now about 3 miles beyond Sarria. Met up with friends en route but no-one’s made it to Barbadelo, where I am now. A swimming pool here – with a cold wind no surprise that no-one’s in there swimming.

21 Oct   I’ve slowed right down in the last hour – bruised heel. Will have to see how I go. Now Portomarin, heading for Palas de Rei – but may not get there tonight! [Stayed in the Casa Molar albergue in Ventas de Naron]

22 Oct   Heel (where it joins the sole) swollen this morning, got out of bed and couldn’t walk. Was thinking – crisis, taxis etc. But we Colliers don’t give in. Started walking with a limp – and 16 miles later I was going quite well, arriving in Melide. Went much more slowly esp this morning, and enjoyed it. Day made in heaven, that helps. And God would have thought he’d done pretty well with the Galician countryside as well. Two days out from Santiago. Only question – how will the foot be in the morning? Have I pushed it too much today?

Meal tonight polpo – octopus – local speciality! Walked back with a slow limp. Yet, somehow, I will be walking tomorrow!

23 Oct  For a bear with a sore foot today was ridiculous – walked all the way from Melide to Pedrouzo, over 20 miles. Didn’t want to walk so far but in the end no choice. Only 12 or so miles tomorrow. But after 4 days of wonderful weather looks like tomorrow may be damp even wet. But will be special to reach Santiago. Tonight not in an albergue but a small ‘hostel’, v cheap – but my own room.

24 Oct  ARRIVED IN SANTIAGO !!! just over 2 hrs ago, missed the midday pilgrim mass by a few minutes – I’d been walking over 4 hrs, but hotel is snug and v close to cathedral. I have my certificate. Big anti-gov political rally going in plaza in front of cathedral when I arrived, so not quite the right mood! Will return later and reflect. 400 miles since 1 Oct, av 17 a day… But in 4 words WOW I MADE IT!

25 Oct   Wonderful day here, hobbling at first but kept bumping into friends from way back on the trail all day, hugs and goodbyes. I’ve been a lone walker – and yet I’ve made great friends! Warm sunny day – drizzling now. Midday mass was wonderful, with the great botafumeiro censor swinging its vast arc at the end of the service. Originally intended to fumigate pilgrims – I’m ok but not sure about all my clothes. BUT I’m a-comin’ home tomorrow, all being well flight into Heathrow early evening. Almost four weeks away….




Shadow – four poems

See the links below for four poems inspired by the Camino.

The setting for three poems is the landscape between Puente La Reina and Estella. Bright mid-morning sunshine, with a shimmer already on the path, but shadows still sharp.

For he fourth, Doom Bar, the setting is across the the river Camel from Padstow, near the beginning of the Saints’s Way across Cornwall.

Shadow   Fuente   Shell   Doom Bar

All entirely imagined I should add!!



The Camino and the poem

I didn’t carry a book of poems with me on the Camino. I thought about it. But I wanted all my responses to be my own, and not guided by the insights of others. Now I’m back, and I’m reading, and writing.

Antonio Machado has a reminder of another way of walking:

I have walked many roads, / I have found many paths; / I have sailed a hundred seas, / and landed on a hundred shores…

And in all places I have seen/ people who dance and play, / when they can, and work / their four spans of land.

Never when they come to a place / do they ask where to go. / When they make their way, they ride / on the back of an old mule / and do not know to hurry /not even on the days of the fiesta…

We’re privileged to walk the Camino. Countless others have travelled before us, and they’ve travelled wisely, and slowly. (Walking slowly is something I’m not always too good at, as my Camino friends will testify!)

Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken reminds us of chance and serendipity:

…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the road less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference.

There is of course only one route westward (and a few diversions) on the Camino. But is there? Depending on when you start, the month, the season, the weather, the clouds, the shadows – there are a thousand routes.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Way through the Woods catches the sense of those who’ve travelled a path before us:

…Yet, if you enter the woods / Of a summer evening late… / You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet, / and the swish of a skirt in the dew / Steadily cantering through / The misty solitudes

This is a corner of England, not Spain, and it’s woodland, and the path is no more… but the resonance is still there. And that sense of impermanence: the Camino hasn’t always been there, and won’t always be there.  We are our own moment in time.

I was always conscious on the Camino of those who’d walked before me, maybe a thousand years ago. St James never walked the way, but as Santiago Matamoros he led the Spanish army against the Moors, so legend would have it. He could also be my companion, and to see what I mean by that check out another post, with two poems of my own, under the heading ‘Shadow – four poems’.

On another tack, there’s Pablo Neruda:

And that’s why I have to go back / to so many places in the future / there to find myself… / with no task but to live / with no family but the road

I love Neruda but there’s a Rilke poem I can’t find that captures the idea of the future, of a light ahead we never reach, even  better.

[Rilke poem, The Walk, now found, thanks to my friend, Sarah, my companion for three days on the Camino.

Already my eyes touch the sunlit hill/Far ahead of the road I have just begun/ So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;/We see its light even from a distance –

And it changes us, even if we do not reach it,/Into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;/A gesture seems to wave us on, answering our own wave,/But what we feel is the wind in our faces.]

Finally, another, and famous, Machado:

Walker, your footsteps / are the road, and nothing more.

Walker, there is no road, / the road is made by walking.

Walking you make the road, / and turning to look behind / you see the path you never / again will step upon.

Walker there is no road, / only foam trails on the seas.

We experience highs and the lows, joys and sorrows, we walk in company and alone, we laugh and we keep silence. There’s a poem somewhere which captures every mood.

Or almost does, which is why we keep writing our own poems. No-one quite captures a moment or a mood as we do ourselves. We only need the pen, and the silence.


A bookshop window on Monday night

Delighted to have the resurgence of the book as print confirmed. Up 9.8% on last year. ‘Physical sales’ is the term used by the Bookseller (trade mag) editor, and that I rather like. E-books looked to be on a winning curve, but they’ve been armwrestled back.

On that positive note ….

Walking back from a movie, passing the Richmond Bookshop, there’s a book in the window which catches my eye, the ‘Wisdom of Grace’ I think the title reads. Closer inspection reveals it’s ‘Wisden on Grace’ – the cricketer, WG Grace, he of beard and enormous girth….

Nearby is ‘Find Fenton’, taking off the classic ‘Where’s Wally’. You’re tasked to search for the ‘world’s most disobedient dog’, none other than the Fenton which famously chased deer in Richmond Park, refusing to heed his owner’s anguished shouts of ‘Fenton! Fenton!’ Someone caught it all on camera, and it went viral in Facebook. And now – the book!

And a third title, ‘We Go to the Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Guide (Dung Beetle Reading Scheme 1a)’.  The format is ‘Ladybird’, and it looks like it’s in the new ‘for grown-ups’ series, but it’s not (maybe ‘Dung Beetle’ is a bit of a giveaway!) – rather it’s a very clever one-off, sending up contemporary art.

(Penguin who publish Ladybird weren’t too happy and sued the Dung Beetle publisher. Reading that sentence, and not knowing book publishing, you’d think – what the hell….)

So that’s two stocking-fillers. Wisden on Grace wouldn’t fit the stocking.

There’s also I see a ‘Corbyn Colouring Book’. This may not be acceptable in all stockings.


I went out running a few mornings ago for the first time since I walked the Camino. My left foot remains a little sore, and I’ve been taking precautions, but I have to get out there! Running over Cranham Common, the wind blowing strong but no longer a gale, a rare touch of blue in the grey above, and big views over winter woods and hills on all sides.

My mind all the while has been on my favourite Lake District haunts, many overwhelmed by floods. The A591 torn away at one point, the bridge at Pooley Bridge undermined, and floods in Keswick, and up the Eden valley in Appleby. And now Glenridding.

Helicopter camera shots, TV cameramen, are after the event. Rivers race, streets are flooded. But the deluge itself doesn’t get recorded. Living through the rain, and the apprehension as it doesn’t stop.

And then there are the torrents debouching from the mountains, from the Helvellyn range, from the Scafells, the sheer force of water which tore through Glenridding. TV is after the event.

The fields were flooded as far south as Cheshire when I was there two weeks ago. The rain has nowhere to go. Further north still more so. Down south it’s grey and the wind howls, as it’s doing now, as a new depression wings its way in. But by comparison we’re no more than damp.

The rain follows a more northerly track, and still the depressions pile in.

Three characters in search of a blog

Frank Auerbach – there’s a major retrospective at Tate Britain, Wilfred Thesiger – living among the Marsh Arabs in Iraq in the 1950s, and Rudolf Abel, from Stephen Spielberg’s latest movie, Bridge of Spies.

A painter, an explorer, and a Russian spy.

Starting with Auerbach, and two quotations:

After each session he scrapes off the paint and begins again. A single painting might take months, even years, before something appears that he hadn’t predicted and, he hopes, means the work is finished. (Catherine Lambert, Tate Etc magazine) and The paint contorts to capture it [nature] …not the ‘character’ of a scene or even its atmosphere, but rather it simply ‘being there’… (TJ Clark, from Frank Auerbach , edited by Catherine Lampert)

Just two studios over sixty years, both Camden Town, subject matter all local to his corner of north London, and very few models for his portraits. Auerbach endlessly reworked his patch of land. Inspiration could come in a moment, realisation take many months, or longer.

I came across a book entitled ‘Zen Drawing’ recently but could find little of Zen in it. There’s much more in Auerbach. (Don’t know though if he’d want to own the idea!) Paintings conventionally freeze a moment in time, make the impermanent permanent. It’s as if Auerbach doesn’t want that permanence, and only when he feels he’s achieved that sense of a painting ‘being there’ is he content.

There’s also that sense of ‘being there’ in Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs, which I’ve re-read this week. Remote areas, as far from ‘civilisation ‘ as he could manage, were always his preferred location, and he didn’t travel in a conventional sense – as far as he could he inhabited  a region, shared it with the locals, lived and adopted their lifestyle, and even style of dress. (A cross between the Great White Hunter and Widow Twanky, according to Gavin Young.)

Memories of that first visit to the Marshes have never left me: firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese, duck flighting in to feed, a boy’s voice singing somewhere in the dark, canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reed beds, narrow waterways that wound deeper into the Marshes…. Stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this with life, and to be more than a mere spectator. 

Visiting at least seven months each year over seven years, he saw a millennia-old way of life slipping away at first hand, as oil money literally seeped into southern Iraq. There’s close observation but also the fragility of that evening moment. How much did he sense its imminent collapse? That the young people would leave marshes, maybe yes, but that Saddam Hussein would drain the marshes – surely not.

Thesiger was always on the move, but always within his chosen patch – this time the lower Euphrates and Tigris. Likewise  Auerbach, at a very different, almost infinitely more local level. Thesiger was always open to experience, and so too in his studio was Auerbach, waiting on inspiration and working it up into that marvellous thick impasto which makes some of his paintings as much sculpture as painting.

Also finally, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Cold War thriller built around the 1957 exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and American U2 pilot, Gary Powers. Tom Hanks is puzzled and patient and wise as the lawyer, Donovan, and Mark Rylance is mesmerising, as low-key and dry as can be, as the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. Talking to my daughter afterwards, we both wouldn’t have minded if more of the movie had been a Donovan/Abel two-hander. They develop an understanding born of few words, mutual respect, and Abel’s wonderful dry humour.

‘Aren’t you worried,’ Donovan asks his client. ‘Would it help?’ is Abel’s laconic and deadpan reply.

Connections between the three?  There’s something in their attitude, but also they share a decade…

Thesiger, travelling in 1950s; Auerbach, a young painter finding his way in the 1950s; Donovan defending Abel before the Supreme Court in 1957.

A decade where with each year the threat and fear of a nuclear holocaust grew, and scared me as a schoolboy, the open mind of childhood more than a little tinged by fear.

Auerbach just out of art college responded by producing a series of paintings of building sites, his dark palette obscuring detail. Thesiger escaped as only he knew how. The threat might be a local blood feud, the challenge a dangerous wild boar to shoot or circumcisions to perform. (There was nothing ordinary about Thesiger’s life!)

And the movie? Like me Spielberg is a child of the 1950s, born just thirteen days after me in 1946. What he conveys is a surprising optimism. The inviolability of the American political system, as he and Donovan would wish it, wins out over cynicism and fear. Abel, as Donovan discovers, is a man of integrity, and the American legal system has to respond in kind, whatever the CIA might think.

There a sense of triumph at the end of the movie, something I’m not certain many of us shared in the 1950s, faced with the Cold War confrontations that kept hitting the news. Spy swaps were tawdry affairs. And a Russian spy as a ‘hero’? But in his way, with his quiet courage, that’s how we see Mark Rylance’s Abel.

One final point. The Guardian review of Bridge of Spies suggests that those of us brought up on John Le Carre might expect is ‘shabby compromise and exhausted futility’. What we get instead is ‘decency and moral courage’.

Due process triumphs, as it has so conspicuously failed to do at Guantanamo Bay.

A paler shade of green

Are we entering the anthropocene, a new, man-created geological epoch? I don’t like the term: there’s an implicit assumption that we’re in charge. Climate change has a very different message for us.

One Labour MP commented on Hilary Benn’s recent speech in the Syria debate, ‘If only a shadow Foreign Secretary would talk about climate change with such passion.’ Unfair, not least because it’s not his brief. But it is an issue that’s inspired some fine rhetoric in Paris this week. Compared to Copenhagen in 2009, the hard truths of climate change are accepted by almost everyone, right-wing US diehards excepted.

The issue is how we deal with them (the hard truths, that is) – by investing more heavily in green forms of energy and/or looking for technological solutions. The earth as a self-regulating system (in James Lovelock’s terms), effectively an organism in its own right, which we disrespect at our peril, or the earth as servant of mankind, mankind ultimately omnicompetent, pushing back frontiers of knowledge and technology, destined to find answers to everything, well, almost everything.

I go with the former, because it keeps us grounded, keeps us in touch with our lives and our world as it is, and doesn’t posit some technology-driven future which could undermine that sense of connection with the Earth (inadvertently but appropriately capitalised!), and ultimately our very humanity.

But I am, that said, all in favour of investing in technological solutions. If India continues to build up its coal-mining capacity, and burn more and more, how might clean coal technologies make a difference? And carbon capture not just from coal. There’s also ongoing research into making clouds more reflective. And much else.

Awareness is everything. Having won the argument over climate change – it is for real, we have to face those who argue that current wind and solar technologies are too inefficient or too expensive, and use that to make a case for reducing or withdrawing funding now.  (The UK government being a case in point.) Their argument in one sentence: put funding, and it could be vast funding, into new technologies, and some will work, and some will not, but trust in technology and we will find an answer.

As a strategy it’s high risk. It’s dangerous to trust in hypothetical futures. There are current strategies which may be inefficient, and still small scale, but they have impact, and will in time – as, for example, solar cells become much more efficient and energy storage is improved – put subsidy behind them, and be fully commercial. We can’t risk losing the momentum we have.

I can’t get into carbon taxes and cap-and-trade here (expertise I haven’t got!), but they are of course another strand of the argument.

In the meantime we rely on imported gas, nuclear (handing over to the French for expertise and the Chinese for finance, high risk, given the importance of energy security), and fracking (also, high risk, this time in terms of local environments). How we strike a balance is not something this blog can address.

There’s a letter in a recent edition of The Times arguing for the potential, in the longer term, for turning CO2 into fuel – ‘artificial hydrocarbon fuels’. (CCU – carbon capture and utilisation.) It’s a process that requires vast amounts of energy, but as the writers say, ‘it is no use burning hydrocarbons to make hydrocarbons’. We’d need to use renewable energy sources, and that, they argue, should include nuclear power, with the ‘ultimate solution’ being to use solar power.

That struck a chord with me, not least because it sums up the dilemmas we face.