Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)

Iain Duncan Smith – can I not be cynical? 

A challenge.

My last post suggested that Good Friday is a day not to be cynical. And then we have Iain Duncan Smith. And he presents a challenge! After more than five years in post, knowing all the while his government’s agenda, and being a living breathing (I think) part of that agenda, making an apparent heart-on-the sleeve resignation, in a way that could not have been more public. Or damaging.

Another challenge to my self-imposed ban on cynicism is the Daily Mail. How I wondered did it respond to IDS’s resignation? They support a pensioner-friendly, undeserving poor, scrounger-hating agenda, so I expected they’d come down heavily on soft-hearted Iain.  So no surprise – his resignation was a ‘silly and petulant act’.

On the other hand, IDS is a leading Brexiter, and isn’t the Mail rather keen on Brexit? I’d like to have been at the Mial editorial meeting which decided which line to take. If I read the Mail more avidly maybe I’d pick up on the nuances of its response. (Although for a Paul Dacre-edited paper it doubt if there’s too much ‘nuance’).

What I’d love to see is legislation requiring as part of the freedom of the press agenda the publication of the editorial meeting minutes (and maybe a few private e-mails as well – thinking Hillary Clinton!) of the Daily Mail.

And while we’re at it – all owners and editors fully UK domiciled and tax-paying.

That’s enough cynicism for one Good Friday.

OK – mild by some standards!

Good Friday

Good Friday. We all dash to the shops. The year’s extra bank holiday. Its purpose it seems all but forgotten. And yet the world fifty years ago (and for many centuries before of course) shut down on Good Friday. Today and Christmas Day were the quietest days of the year.

I will sit quietly at 3pm this afternoon, in a church somewhere – I don’t know where yet – taking part in a meditation on the crucifixion – traditionally celebrated at the ‘ninth hour’. It will be a time to think quietly about the Christian message at its very heart – release from all that bears us down and all the evil in the world. Whether we take it literally, as an act of supreme sacrifice, or not, the crucifixion is a remarkable symbol, and it connects God and man, the spiritual and the material, in a way that still strikes home for countless millions.

So it’s also a day not be cynical. Even if you’re a humanist or atheist.

Do we need symbols? you might ask. Reminders, connectors, pathways – they take us beyond the everyday. We all have our own private symbols. But the crucifixion is a worldwide symbol. We share it with the world, and at 3pm this afternoon (with a few allowances for timezone changes!) we will be sharing it at – almost- the same moment.

Superstition? – no – that sharing is powerful, and real.

The British Museum – where all cultures and all peoples meet

‘The cultures of the world are at home here, and the people who carry those cultures.’

This was the response of the new director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, lately director of the Dresden State Art Collections, to  the Pegida movement and the anti-migrant , anti-Muslim demonstrations in Dresden over the last year and more. He persuaded the state government to allow long banners to hang outside the main Dresden Museum with the words:

‘The State Art Collection Dresden. Works from Five Continents. A House Full of Foreigners.’

He’s attracted a pretty virulent response and some downright nasty chants – ‘traitor to the people’- and similar, which have unpleasant resonances. But he’s brought people from all backgrounds together, and created by all accounts a special atmosphere (‘open-hearted and warm’) around the place.

He seems to be a bit of a hero. He has an impeccable background as an art historian, but he’s more than that – ‘a citizen of the world’ – and he deserves a big big welcome.

Under Neil MacGregor the BM has already opened itself to the world – almost, given the crowds, too much so! So all power to the museum for recognising that modern museums should be all about reaching out to present and future generations – t0 the wide and not the narrow world – as well as the past.

(I’ve memories from my early teens of my first-ever gallery, the Manchester City Art Gallery, and standing puzzled but vaguely curious in front of paintings by Italian Primitives. Hard to imagine anywhere more fusty, and I was almost – but happily not quite!! – put off forever.)

(With thanks to the Economist for background information on Hartwig Fischer’s appointment.)

An island of ill-repute

I’m just back from an island of (supposed) ill-repute, Lanzarote – where the sun shines all day and it’s warm, even in mid-March, and volcanoes stride the length of the island (at Timanfaya they simply take over), and up in the north-west there are 2000 ft cliffs – and you climb through a landscape of spring flowers (yes, there’s soil for the flowers to grow in, and even a solitary apricot tree) to reach what you think might be a col or a pass – and there below you is the ocean, the Atlantic, which stretches 3000 or 4000 miles away to the Americas. And you stand there, and you dream. And out east, only maybe 20 miles away, the streets and beaches teem. And you stand there – the two of you, alone.

There are terraces right up to the edge, but sadly no longer cultivated. Vegetables and vines no longer economic. So maybe a touch desolate – but we loved it.

From the cliff edge, taking care not to attempt to take to lean out too far for a better view, you can see, looking north, a small island, Isla Graciosa. It has a village – a port, a few hundred people, and no roads, and though just four miles long it has two volcanoes. You can take a boat and eat in a fish restaurant, and head back the same afternoon – maybe after a walk – rumour has it there are paths. We didn’t make it there this time. Next time.

Sitting on a volcano in the middle of the Atlantic. Yes, that is my idea of fun!!

How to combat the post-Camino blues…

My friend Sarah from the Camino put up a request on her Facebook page. As follows –

“….Do you remember those feelings of loss or low points when you got home from the Camino? …. What were your one or two tips or strategies for beating the Post-Camino blues?…”

I replied with more than one or two – Sarah’s question made me think!

Follow the rising and the setting of the sun and moon, and the passage of the day. They’re there for us now as they were on the Camino – Find quiet in all the quiet places, and the noisy places too – Give yourself space, and imagine, re-imagine – Call to mind the landscapes and your friends, and how wonderfully international it all is, important when there’s so much talk everywhere about closing borders – And keep walking: the Camino is magic, but there are wonderful walks within reach of all (I hope so anyway) of us – And sing as you walk: the songs you sang, and maybe even the hymns 

(I loved singing in the early morning, before the sun rose, and I was on my own, no-one in sight behind or ahead. ‘The King of Glory passes on his way,’ is a line from one favourite hymn – I just liked the idea of God walking – God walking with me. We think of God as sedentary. I prefer a peripatetic God!)

And how does all that leave me feeling?! Time for a local walk, the Surrey hills – corners of wilderness within sight, from Leith Hill, of big-city London. Time for a bigger walk – return to the Cornish coast path, or get back to the Lake District, and Helvellyn, and Scafell.

And… yes, time for a BIG walk – get back on the Camino – the Camino Portugues will take me from Porto to Santiago later this year – j’espere! And then on to Finisterre, that final three of four days, which will take me to the ocean.

For which, see my next post…

Good King Richard and his lass, and bad King Boris

I’m exploring my collection of LPs for my student days, and a favourite song (as sung by Shirley Collins) is Richie Story – King Richard leaves his throne and becomes a ‘serving man’ to a country lady who he falls in love with. In time she becomes queen,’and many a knight and many a squire stood there to welcome Richard’s lady’. It’s a smashing story, combining humility and love and joy. Humility was hardly an attribute of the real King Richard, but popular myth would have it otherwise. I don’t often find such simple happiness listening to a song – and I wondered why.

Tune and singer have something to do with it, and message. Humility too rarely wins out. Maybe I’ve just never got over fairy tales with happy endings.

And on the debit side – yesterday evening I also felt I had to listen to (some of!) Boris Johnson’s speech on Europe. Bad King Boris? No humility here. And a risk of a very unhappy ending. In the best Grimm tradition?

It seems we’d be negotiating a deal similar to the free trade agreement the EU has with Canada, should we leave (and Boris would probably by then be PM). We are twenty miles from France, and our history has been intertwined over millennia with the European mainland, and yet our relationship would be defined by a deal with a country 3000 miles way. We also had Boris insisting that trade would go on with Europe as before – as one of many examples, we export chocolate to France, and the French will continue to export their chocolate to us – so the world will continue as before. Maybe, maybe not – but I rather like the place we’ve got to with the EU as it stands. Why on earth leave? I still await a significant rational verifiable argument.

Beyond the fairy tale link I can’t really connect King Richard with the EU, or use him to back the arguments for staying in. He was an Englishman, archetypal we’d like to think, and a crusader, and he made it to Jerusalem. And he got imprisoned on the way back.

Keep out of gaol would be my message – what that gaol is I leave to you, the reader, to decide!