We arrived by train at the station in Oranienburg, the self-same station that the inmates of this concentration camp arrived in. They would have been met by SS and marched to the camp, a distance of just over 1 km. The houses along the road are detached dormer-type homes with shiny glazed roofs. The gardens, all well kept. The SS guards lived in these houses apparently the design exactly the same as in Dachau and Buchenwald.
At the main entrance, Tower A. The gate has the grotesque and dishonest maxim ‘Work will set free!’. Work in this setting would never have set anyone free.
In this camp perhaps 250,000 passed through and between 60-70,000 were systematically murdered.
A tract of land excluded from the neighbouring town by the erection of a wall where more than death was planned and executed. A grand, terrifying scheme of torture, debasement and degradation was meted out here. Even the naming of the towers from A to Station Zed, the chamber of death was macabre. Terms like ‘execution trench’, ‘gas chamber’, and innocuous terms like ‘barrack’, ‘kitchen’, hospital’ were not and never were innocent or ordinary terms in this setting.
The so called hospital where no Jew or gypsy was ever treated, served as the centre for experimentation on living human beings to intentionally and ruthlessly inject with disease whilst studying the nature of disease progression and testing for the elusive cure. How many people were subjected to this inhumane treatment and suffered and died too? A misuse of a dissecting table.
And there was a prison too, a prison in a concentration camp! The hierarchy of defilement meant that criminals, petty criminals were more valued as human beings and better treated and dealt less contumely than the true innocents- this was an unimaginable space of desecration of values- whatever hell is or the realm of perfidy, this place was it.
Our guide, Pietro, a young Italian talked about Himmler, a vegetarian who was said to faint or puke at the sight of blood- yet, invented and elaborated an industrial system of murder. The system for murdering Russian soldiers was callous and cunning. First you deceive them to believe they are about to be released, next you spruce them up in a bath and shower and then ask them to stand against a wall to be measured for your new uniform but your killer fits a gun in a hole behind the base of your skull and fires to kill.
It was an ordinary day here at Sachsenhausen. The sky was blue and flawless. The sun was out and there was a gentle breeze. But in 1941, it was anything but. If you were not being punished, you were being tortured, or working or underfed, or sick, or being experimented upon. The odds were your life was at grave risk. Simply put you were likely to be willfully murdered by the SS.
It was the most dispiriting outing of my life. This is what we are capable of, us human beings.
In the evening we went to a jazz concert at B flat club. A trio led by a Russian guitarist, a student in Cologne was playing. It was very delicate music, not raucous, not introspective either. But, balanced and poised as if each note was a trapeze artist on the rope and the tension bobbed the wire up and down and steadied the next note. I had a glass of Portuguese red that I nursed all night long. Outside, when we came out, was still cool, even.
Us miserable humans.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
My train is hurtling towards Euston. It’s that time of the year when all the trees are freshly green and resplendent especially in the full afternoon sun. We’ve just gone past Rugby. There are no more stops before Euston.
The fields to my left have yellow buttercups bordered by Mayflowers. There’s the occasional hedge of vetch. A canal glistens as it too aims for London.
I’m not sure what Vallejo (1892-1938) would have made of a day like this, on a train such as this, travelling through countryside with black and white cows barely moving, like toy cattle on a make believe landscape.
Once he commented to a man “The sun has opened” and the man replied “Yes. A sweet and fallow sun”. This answer discomforted Vallejo because that’s exactly what he thought too. And another man said “Yes. A sweet and shallow sun”. Vallejo was nonplussed. The next man answered “Yes, very cloudy” and the last “A half-sun”.
Vallejo’s poetic sensibility wished to be unique, not at all like anyone else. He wanted to see what others could not, and also to find the right words for it. To his astonishment and chagrin he was not unique or special in his ability both to see the world and to accurately describe it.
But, Vallejo could be said to have prompted these responses since his actual statement was unusual- it’s not everyday that someone, anyone says “The sun has opened”. Does it open like an umbrella or a door flooded with light? Is it more like a flower or mimosa recovering from being touched? There was in his statement an ambiguity that spoke to poetry, that questioned what we see and how we see and speak about it. And Vallejo is doing that all the time in his poetry.
In a prose poem ‘Sounds of the steps of a great criminal’ he wrote
When the switched off the light, I felt like laughing. In darkness things resumed their tasks where they had left them: in a face, the eyes lowered to the nasal conches and there they took an inventory of certain optic values that were lost, taking them immediately; […] three parallel raindrops stopped at the height of a threshold waiting for one that had been caught up, who knows why; the guard at the corner blew his nose noisily; the highest and lowest step of a winding staircase once again gestured to each other regarding the last passerby who went up them
Here in this poem, Vallejo is using darkness as a device to help us re-examine the world, to re-discover the reality of mundane, everyday objects and situations and to valorise them, making more visible, more poetic, if you wish.
My first encounter with Vallejo was the poem ‘I am going to speak of hope’. The very first paragraph was arresting enough
I do not suffer this pain as Cesar Vallejo. I do not hurt now as an artist, as a man or even as a mere living being. I do not suffer this pain as a Catholic, as a Muslim, nor as an atheist. Today I simply suffer. Were my name not Cesar Vallejo, I would suffer this same pain […] Today I suffer from deep down. Today I simply suffer
I thought, here was a writer who understood how suffering, pain, sorrow could be both personal and yet not contingent on any identity markers. In melancholia, the agony is unbearable at once as being inexplicable. This is the territory that Vallejo traverses,
It is necessary to distinguish my actual pain from the pain that comes from having nothing to feel pain for. Today I suffer a pain without cause nor lack of cause. There are pains like this in the unfathomable kingdom, in the continent – without history or future – of man’s heart. I suffer, thus, without conditions or consequences
I suppose what drew me to his writing was realisation that he knew something of the distress that I was seeing everyday in the clinic, the deep and visceral disturbance of the humours, what the Ancients termed accidie. And that he was finding the roundabout route to map and make it recognisable in the absence of unique words.
As my train drew into Euston, it was still a summer’s day. It was warm, bright and sunny. I was still travelling with Vallejo. As I stepped off the train behind a youngish woman and her two children, a boy of perhaps 8 and girl of 6, I overheard the mother say “I wish Trump would just die soon, except Mike Pence would take over and he’s said to be worse”. The boy, all 8 years of him, with the gravitas that innocence gives “But, he might not. He’s involved too, you know”.
I was surprised at the quality of political dialogue between mother and her precocious son. And, it took me straight back to Vallejo’s ‘The discovery of life’.
[…] Gentlemen! Today is the first time that I am aware of the presence of life […] My joy comes from the newness of my excitement. My exultation is such because I had not felt the presence of life before. I have never felt it. Whoever says I have felt it lies. He lies, and his lies hurt me so deep, it would make me wretched. My joy comes from my faith in this personal discovery of life, and no one can contradict this faith. If someone did, his tongue would fall out, his bones will fall off …
Right now I don’t know anyone or anything. I find myself in a strange country in which everything acquires an emphasis of birth, a light of everlasting epiphany. No sir, do not speak to that gentleman. You have never met him and he would be surprised by such unexpected chat. Do not set foot on that little stone: who knows, it might not be a stone and you might fall into the void. Be cautious, for we are in a completely unknown world
Vallejo’s ability to marvel at the newly discovered world, to be full of awe, to be enthralled by the visible yet mundane everyday world, and to insist that we see the world as it is, pure and pristine, as it is given to us. And to avoid complacency, rust, and resignation. To see my 8-year old as a thoughtful, thinking being in discourse with his mother was indeed seeing a completely unknown world.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
I don’t believe that I’ve told you how much I was influenced by Paz. Here was a writer who was constantly seeking the gap between what is real and known and that indefinable domain of the imagined and ephemeral. And in that gap, even though words too are deficient and far too inadequate to the task, he worked at metaphor, sought for compromises with language, in his effort to explore and define a treacherous and dangerous zone. He was an explorer of the netherlands.
When he said
I step on the newly rained earth, the smells sharp, the grass vivid. Silence stands erect and questions me. But I move forward, and plant myself in the centre of my memory. I breathe deeply this air charged with things to come. Swells of the future approach, rumours of conquests, discoveries and those sudden voids with which the unknown prepares its invasions.
That was me, reading the runes, trembling with the anxiety and excitement of youth. Reading those lines today, when I’m no longer young, in the final stages of life, there’s sorrow and disappointment, at what’s been lost not only about how little has accrued over time. The harvest is indeed meagre.
In another poem, Paz said
I’ve spent the second part of my life breaking the stones, drilling the walls, smashing the doors and removing the obstacles I placed between the light and myself in the first part of my life.
Even though these lines are underlined in my copy of this book, I did not really understand his meaning- I was a mere 25 year old when I first read those words and the second half of life was hardly on the horizon.
I’m sitting under the dome of Grand Central, eating lunch on the run. It is a sunny first day of June outside. Everyone is out. The young women are dressed for the sun, bared shoulders, short skirts, lanky shaved legs, and hair flowing in the slight breeze. It’s the kind of breeze that’s a godsend to runners, only the barest of hint of leaves swaying on the branches of the May trees, spent flowers falling off slowly.
Paz had a gift for turning the mundane into myth. An ordinary street in town in the afternoon heat becomes
The anthill erupts. The open wound gushes, foams, expands, contracts. The sun at these times never stops pumping blood, temples swollen, face red. A boy – unaware that, in some corner of puberty, fevers and a problem of conscience await him – carefully places a small stone on the flawed mouth of the anthill. The sun buries its lances in the humps of the plain, crushing promontories of garbage.
I return to the plain, to the plain where it is always noon, where an identical sun shines fixedly on an unmoving landscape. And the ringing of the twelve bells never stops, nor the buzzing of the flies, nor the explosion of this minute that never passes, that only burns and never passes.
In another poem, and these are prose poems, Paz writes once again about the sun, the solar stone that burns with incredible energy, the very one that inflames our world, and enlightens it-
The day unfolds its transparent body. Tied to the solar stone, the light pounds me with its great invisible hammers. I am only a pause between one vibration and the next: the living point, the sharp, quiet point fixed at the intersection of two glances that ignore each other and meet within me.
Paz is forever interrogating the self. Here is a prepubescent boy, if he is like me, he does not yet know of the problem of conscience. And I’m an adult, knowing it, has it done me any good? Especially that I’m mere moment, mere transient point in space, in other words ephemera!
He is ever dealing in the interstitial yet to be uncovered truth- a simple act like a touch for Paz is at once problematic and serious. It signals where the physical meets the imagined and tenuous
Open the curtains of your being
Clothe you in a further nudity
Uncover the bodies of your body
Invent another body for your body.
He is saying that in that caress that pleases and awakens lurks another caress, a seeking after an elusive body, maybe of a lover, a mistress, maybe only of the longed for desired other.
It is always remarkable that anyone, but particularly myself, finds himself in the writings of another person, one who is 37 years older, who speaks Spanish and lives in Mexico. But that is the magic and thrall of literature. When Paz says
He invented a face for himself.
He lived, died, and resurrected,
His face today
Has the wrinkles of that face.
His wrinkles have no face
he is addressing the public face that I wear, that secretes its darkness and moist undergrowth behind smiles and silk. Paz is knocking on the door that is locked and barricaded for fear of the ruthless crowd who lurk and prey on the vulnerabilities of the self. That face, that door is veiled in the wrinkles of age and weariness.
Paz knows deeply indeed that every thing that we encounter in the world but everything, reality as we call it, is inside of us, tremulous and opaque, dissipating before we can capture it and is fleeting like time itself, and treacherous if not a perilous adventure into self.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode
It takes 11 years for Titan Arum to grow from a seedling to this remarkable 2 m fleshy spike and 3 m circumference of leaf-like structure. And, there we were standing before one of these monsters, barely 48 hours away from the spectacular inflorescence. The inflorescence itself lasts 48 hours if you’re lucky and is accompanied by the smell of rotting corpses that ants, bees and flies can detect 3 miles downwind and humans from a mile away. When all is expended, the spike turns into a glorious tumescent growth of red brightly coloured seeds, showy and inviting.
A good way to think of this is to imagine a man spread-eagled on his back and lying on the damp earth, his buttocks the bulb immersed in the ground and his limbs the spathe, the leaf like structures when they’re expired and his genitals the gigantic, titanic spadix all erect and at attention. But, you will have to magnify this vision several fold to get anywhere close to the reality of a titan of the tropical forests of Sumatra.
I overheard some close by flies saying -one of my ancestors came here in the crate from Sumatra with this one and he told us of the legendary smell that is worth dying for. Another cousin said his ancestors had remarked that not since the Battle of the Somme had the earth produced such effulgence and that was marred by tragedy whereas the Titan, well that is all glory, it is life pretending to be dead. And another fly boasted how his ancestors nestled in the spathe, delirious with ecstasy, feted and sated, were ready once more to breed ivory maggots. What were the chances of any fly witnessing this unique inflorescence anywhere in Europe, if not for the magnanimity of the Eden project?
We were spending the last day of our holidays at the Eden Project. Everything after the Titan was of a different scale. The begonias with their purple and green leaves, the purple flowers of periwinkle or the white flowered variety, black pepper plants with their light green leaves and climbing vines, the deeply green leaves of coffee plants and delicate, ultra sensitive mimosa, these were like afterthoughts after the impending inflorescence of the Titan.
I came across a snowbush, with their green leaves that were brushed and stained by pretend snow. We had a hedge of these in my youth, in Lagos and did not know that this here plant was a parody of snow. Perhaps the shampoo ginger came closest to Titan with its eye catching red torch but perhaps not.
The planet has survived 5 previous mass extinctions! That’s food for thought. We are sleepwalking towards another cataclysm, this time manmade and masterminded by the Great Leader. All this glory, the wonderful and indescribable plurality of life put at jeopardy for a few bucks. That’s another form of tragedy.
We had arrived to stay at Duloe Manor just a few days ago. Lewis Carroll wrote parts of Alice in Wonderland here. We were not staying at the main house, at the manor but in one of the many cottages on the grounds. We arrived on a bright sunny spring day. The light was exactly as it is in Provence- soft with a lucid quality that lights up everything.
Our first walk was from the manor to the medieval stone circle in the fields nearby. Even though we could see the stones we could not immediately find a path to them. We stopped to watch a country/village cricket match. We skirted round the match and walked on the marked footpath- there were pink and white campion everywhere also, primroses, lady’s smock, dandelions, buttercups and bluebells. Overhead, rooks were cawing and flying in and out of their nests.
Very quickly the sun disappeared behind the clouds and what had been a pleasant day quickly turned cool as the temperature dropped, as if the wind sweeping in from the coast was pushing it further down. We did not go far, perhaps 2 miles and turned right round back to the manor.
On May Day we drove to Kingsand and walked through to Cawsand. It had rained without stop all of 2 days, almost. We walked up the coastal path, 4 miles of it in a drizzle that did not falter. The view out to sea, from up the path was grey and seen as if through a fine gauze. The cove beneath was picturesque. And across the bay, two yachts were out with their sails open. The coastal path was bordered by vetch, ferns that were not yet fully unfurled, a carpet of bluebells covered the valley floor. There were the occasional ‘white bells’ too. Again there were campion, both white and pink.
We were out to see the annual Black Prince Flower Boat Festival parade from Millbrook through Kingsand and ending in Cawsand. We had lunch at the Halfway House. Back at Kingsand the children had gathered round a maypole and were dancing with bright coloured ribbons. With each dance, the ribbons formed a pattern on the Maypole. Each dance was choreographed to create an even more exquisite pattern of plaits at the top of the maypole.
Then the Town Crier called us to order and read from an ancient scroll – the May floribunda would banish the gloom of winter and welcome in the summer, except that it was a cold damp day, hardly auspicious for summer’s start. He prayed too for a successful harvest season from land and sea. Six naval ratings picked up the Flower Boat with 2 walking behind and we set off from Kingsand.
At our first stop, two groups of Morris dancers performed- an older group wearing black trousers, white shirts, black hats and the other group, younger by far, dressed in light blue jeans, white shirts or blouses and were riotous. The young revolutionaries enacted a conflict in Plymouth between the aldermen and freemen. At the Halfway House Inn, more Morris dancing by the young revolutionaries enacting the 12th century conflict between Cornwall and the French- there was much attack and repel in this dance.
Behind us was a young man with a hidden camel hump of cider connected by pipe to a tap. He mucked about pretending to piss the cider from in between his legs whilst at the same time being free with his drink. In his company were two young women dressed as green men- in frocks decked in leaves and their faces were painted in green and glitter. An acquaintance lamented being a family man now and far too old to lark about in green costume, getting inebriated on cider.
W had been out 4 hours. We drove back to Duloe along the most treacherously narrow lanes in Cornwall, winding along the coast’s precipitous cliffs and the utter beauty of the valleys suddenly opening up as we turned a corner to reveal rounded and green hills with the grey sky and bluish grey and steel coloured sea in the distance.
New words are some of the most priceless discoveries of these trips away. At Kingsand, the house names- Moonfleet, Seagarth, Seaview, Tamarisk and Spindrift made concrete and new what was already old and known. At Carnglaze caverns, it was the names of fossils, stones and minerals that made it for me- silicates, phyllosilicates, cenartz, fluorites, chinastone, feldspar, orthoceras, amethyst, red haematite, deep dark purplish morion quartz, and black zinc blende.
The cathedral cavern had rust red walls that were also brown, yellow, orange or a different shade of red. The baby pool was turquoise and the mother pool was shimmering with ripples that fanned out. Our walk through the enchanted dell with faeries and azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom was strangely enchanting.
We went to Golitha falls, where the river Fowey cascaded down 90 feet from its source at the Brown Willy on Bodmin Moor right down to Fowey where it entered the sea. The river flowed and meandered through gorse and grass, bluebells, lichen and moss. Right here at Golitha falls the birds twittered and this was the backdrop to the indescribable gurgling of the river running over rocks, splashing through cracks and openings and then splayed out in spray and spume.
To end the day we drove up to Bodmin moor along the river. There was gorse everywhere. The moor looked as if it had been sprayed or sprinkled with red gold that shone in the late evening light. The brilliance was like an outpouring of song in church. We stopped for a drink at Jamaica Inn and from up there we could see the top of the moorland around, perfectly rounded, perfectly stretching out to the valleys below.
Then it was time for the seaside at Seaton beach, a grey-coloured sandy beach. It was a medium sized bay with a café at one end and the start of a promenade at the other end. It was impossible to walk bare-footed on the stony beach. Out to sea we could see Looe snuggling into the hillside and the vast ocean just going out into the forever. Inland was Seaton valley itself. The trees up the valley were all fresh with delicate newly sprouted green leaves. Then even more gorse in clumps of yellow like giant pollen dusted on the horizon.
At Polperro harbor we came across the most perfect natural harbor ever. There was a long inlet into the harbor proper. The homes on one side were exactly as you would imagine a harbor- cottages cramped together, white washed with the odd blue or black splash of color. Narrow and intimate spaces crying out for smugglers and wenches. We stopped for drinks at the Blue Peter Inn, a small pub on the first floor just round from the harbor. The ceiling was black oak, low narrow beams with sayings- ‘Beer was invented so ugly people can get laid’; ‘the more people I meet, the more I love my dog’; ‘I would argue with you, but then we would both be wrong’. The barmaids were a trio of one brunette with shades on her head, one blonde in jeans and a blue jersey and a third older blonde and still comely. They were all cheerful.
We are now safely home. Some 150 miles back in the Midlands and the sun is out. I am sure that the Titan Arum would be its majestic self today and maybe, just maybe if I put my head outdoors I might just catch a whiff of its magnificent smell of decay. Death is just there in the undergrowth of life.
Photos by Jan Oyebode & Femi Oyebode
Our Bell Boy, Raymundo, was not a boy at all but a full-grown man. He was a small, that is to say, short man, of slight build and weathered oak complexion. He was a Philippino. He carried our luggage up to our room on the first floor of the Atlantic Hotel. We are in Florence for a few days. He talked about Duterte, condemning Duterte’s vulgar language. I talked about Trump. Raymundo had that kind of laugh that rang like a bell in his throat and burst out of his chest in bursts of chirps. Perhaps he was really a bird first but today he had decided to dress as a man playing a boy in an old school hotel in Florence.
It was only April fool’s day, hardly tourist season but here we were, once again Florence. It was a bright sunny day, which was a relief after the damp and grey early morning start from Heathrow. We spent the night at Crowne Plaza, left the car at the hotel and flew into Bologna for a long weekend. At Bologna we hired a Fiat Cinquecento and drove through at least a dozen tunnels in that half craze traffic that you only get in Italy. The other driver speeds right up close to your rear as if he is going to kiss your arse, all in a hurry, all macho and brutally bullying. Lorries suddenly lurch across from one lane to another with barely a warning. It was a surprise we arrived at Florence at all.
Anyway here we were. Florence. Our room was grand. It had a king-sized bed, an antechamber and bathroom that had a bath with nozzles and inlets to spray water whilst at once irrigating the parts that running water might just miss. This bath was built both to irrigate a dam as well as wash both nostrils and other unmentionable orifices. The last time I saw another machine to match this was in Tokyo but that story is for another day.
Outside the sun shone and the temperature was a cool 21 degrees. The market stalls on the street at 90 degrees specialised in leather goods, shoes, belts, bags, coats, jackets and whatever else man has constructed in leather. East Asians seemed to control the market. We wondered whether these were authentic Italian leather goods or items from China. The traders felt it necessary to inform us that they were made in Italy. All the more reason to believe that a factory somewhere in Chongxi was spewing these leather articles exactly as it does rivets and bolts. More items than there are humans to buy them and even fewer to need them. Alas we are spoilt for choice.
We found our way through the narrow winding streets, heading for the river, the Arno. The streets were packed with people, mostly young and a thronging tourist population. We wondered what the streets would be like in the summer when the tourist season actually kicks off. If you’ve been anywhere near the night market in Bangkok you will know what to expect.
We stopped at the Palazzo Vecchio. The Young David was as we remembered him. Michaelangelo’s eyes catching the youth as he stood in a relaxed posture resting on one leg, confident and innocent. Exactly how I think of Hippolytus- chaste and pure. If only all young men were like that. There’s an abundance of strapping young men, it’s the chaste that’s missing.
In bronze, next-door was Perseus holding Medusa’s head in one hand and with the other his sword. Medusa, the Gorgon lay at his feet, dead. This Benvenuto Cellini statue matched the exacting mastery of Michaelangelo. Many of the other statues were like chintz to china.
By now dusk was drawing close. We must have been walking for an hour at least. The air grew a tad cooler. We headed for Ponte Vecchio. First we glimpsed it from the street by the river and then we walked across to the bridge. The river in the waning light was relatively still and reflected the sky and at the bridge, reflected the arches of the bridges down river. The artists like at the Seine had the most exquisite paintings, pencil drawings of the city, with the dome of the Duomo and the tower shown off at their best, silhouetted against the sky. And then there were the street artists, with reproductions of Rembrandt ‘s Girl with the Pearl Earrings and the Mona Lisa. As always there were the Africans, selling sunshades, or cheap printed reproductions of Klimt’s The Kiss. These were Africans from Mali or Guinea that you will find across the whole of Europe except for Britain. Even as far afield as New York on Broadway you will find them selling umbrellas in case of rain, and these sunglasses, what we called ‘shades’ when I was a boy. The kind of glasses that African tyrants are wont to wear even in the dead of night.
The walkway between the Palazzo Vecchio alongside the Uffizi had statues of Dante, Machiavelli, Boccaccio and others, as we say a veritable Avenue of Italian genius.
On our way back to dinner, we stopped at the Duomo. The last time we were here the children were still children. Now they are both only children by convention since they are both in their 30s. At that time, Jan went up to the tower and I looked after the kids. I am never sure whether I like the Duomo. It is startling in its grandeur. The white and black stripes of its marble cladding is surprising. I can’t say that it’s beautiful or aesthetically pleasing but like the Bullring in Birmingham, it is iconic, to coin a term.
It is a mystery how memory works. I can recall almost in exact detail the young American woman who was our guide all those years ago. She spoke to us about the Medicis, the Strozzis, the Guelph, about the rustications aimed at symbolising impregnable wealth and the warehouses and living quarters above the houses around the Duomo. And then the long impossible afternoon spent at the Uffizi looking at Renaissance paintings of the various stages of the Passion, of the Annunciation, Christ at Golgotha, the Ascension and numerous Mary the sorrowful, the Dolores, the mother and infant, etc. At the end we went to the Boboli gardens to cast off the weight of the finest of fine art.
This time though, we were merely walking the streets and taking in the atmosphere. The city was beautiful even where it was down at heel. And the Italians are masters of style, of aesthetic beauty, at everything that is designed to please the eye. The women and the men too strut, canter, slouch, in the breeziest of manners, always with finesse and elegance.
Last night we went to the obligatory operatic recital. Lenny Lorenzini, a young soprano accompanied by a pianist sang from La Boheme, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Madam Butterfly and two traditional Italian songs. Before opera, there was the matter of dinner. We came upon Restaurant Vivanda, a vegetarian restaurant practically opposite Church of St Monaca, the venue of the operatic recital. Restaurant Vivanda produces its own extra virgin oil, produces its own wine, cooks organic food and slow food and serves tap water. Tap water we thought! Our waitress was dressed in severe black, and was unsmiling, saying with her tight lips I’ve sussed you out, I know that you don’t fit here but I forgive you for choosing wisely. Across the room two American women also in black with tops that spotted half cut sleeves revealing tattoos on their shoulders of warrior women. They both certainly fitted in!
The wines were biological -reflecting the air, climate, season and earth of Florence. No chemist with test tubes measuring pH, evaluating tannins, and seeking to promote some characteristic that Mother Nature had concluded was inessential to the wine’s good.
We were on a shared table with another couple who, like us, did not have a reservation. They had wandered in, off the street, just like us. They weren’t dressed in the obligatory colors of purgatory either. Jan had half moon pasta filled with ricotta cheese and I had risotto with cheese, purple kale dye, mushrooms I think. To my surprise, this was a delicious meal. It just goes to show that you can’t judge a meal by appearances. And, once our waitress saw that we seemed genuinely to enjoy our meals, she relaxed; all sartorial inelegance on our part was forgiven. Perhaps we were crypto vegetarians, slow time activists. If she only knew that we lived in Moseley, a hotbed of revolutionaries and on alternate weekends in Hebden Bridge, the most unconventional town in Britain she might well have kissed us both, recognizing us as long lost comrades in arms.
The Church of St Monaca had a grand piano centre stage. There were frescoes on each side of the altar- St. Monaca and a bishop dressed in elaborate brocade with a turban. The altar was not visible presumably because it was not yet Easter Sunday. The fresco was the dead Christ being carried down from the cross and of sorrowful Mary wiping his brow. On the ceiling was the Ascension. Inset into the wall to my left was Christ on the Cross, in agony and, Mary looking up at him with longing and despair. We were there to hear La traviata sung by Lenny Lorenzini. She was a soprano whose voice suited the church’s acoustics. The echo vibrated to augment her voice, creating multiple layers of color and texture. There was a transparency and openness about her voice, I suppose you could say that there was candor, honesty as well as vulnerability, not frailty though in her voice. Her rendition of a Neapolitan folk song was dramatic, even sensual as her whole body sprang into action, arms outstretched, bottom jutting backwards and lust and desire forming the words and pushing the melody outwards to us. It was a great evening out.
Next day we headed for Pisa. The drive took over an hour. The Cathedral at Pisa was a welcome oasis from the heat of the afternoon. It was the kind of afternoon, in Italy that reminds me of that novel by Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. There is something of bleached dust, of sunlight that is clear, lucid and dry. We had left the cypresses behind, cedar and poplar and early Mayflower perhaps. Pisa itself, the centre of it, was a busy road and dusty houses. It was very definitely not old Florence.
The Cathedral was cool and an impressive shelter. The high ceiling was a feast of gold and more gold- cherubim, floral whorls, and even more emblems and coats of arms. The roof was held up by gigantic granite Roman pillars with marble arches. The interior and exterior white and black marble exquisite and lavish. There were giant canvases by GB Tempesti, Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Francesco Vanni, and a glorious study of light and darkness by Domenico Corvi- The Miracle of St Ubaldesca Pisana.
The carving on the pulpit told the story of the Redemption by Pissaro. The Urn (Sarcophagus) of St Ranieri, the patron saint of Pisa was Roman in origin and bore his bones.
The Baptistery was a tower with a round dome. It was austere and had that coolness of marble spaces, something akin to water from a brook at dawn. At the very centre was a lone figure of a supplicant, a beggar to us, standing naked to the waist with a cloth to cover his modesty and holding a stick. He was thin, and I mean thin. Technically you could say he was emaciated, even cachetic.
The Chapel of Holy Relics had a part of a vest of the Madonna and bones of St Constanza and many more objects that I found either macabre or well, not to my taste. Here too was mention of the Doctors of the Western Church- Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory Magno. Aquinus was a later addition.
The Monumental Cemetery was paved with gravestones and the walls lined with sarcophagi. There was the occasional ostentatious statue of a mathematician say or an Archbishop. Nothing that came close to the exfoliations of New Orleans’ cemeteries.
The highlight was, of course, the leaning tower. And it was more than leaning. It was falling over. It was a spectacle to see this mass of marble, partly toppled, leaning into the wind like a drunken man immobilized for fear that he might truly fall over, if he dared to move another step. What a manikin challenge this was- a tower immobilized in mid fall.
I’ve been far too concerned to tell you about our time in Florence and then Pisa that I simply forgot to say anymore about Raymundo, our Bell Boy. Well he wore an oversized uniform of blue tunic and brass buttons. His movements were clean and angular, like a gazelle sprinting in the near distance. And, his smile was effervescent, beginning in his bright eyes and spreading between mirthfulness and knowing, just the correct side of collusion. If you’re ever in Florence you must look out for him and the strange naturalness of his boyhood in a man’s body.
Photos by Jan & Femi Oyebode
I had thought it was all down to hatred but I was wrong. Hatred was merely a conduit, a means of garnering support, by inducing division and ratcheting up difference. I don’t mean that the Great Wizard or the Great Leader have no hatred or that J Cess is not polluted. In fact he is a typical miasma, in the original Greek sense, ‘a pollution’ in the country. The dramatis personae, Ivan Jar aka Ivanred, Ivan Kar, Aryan the Younger, Rexputin, and the other Ivans- Ivanpence, Ivanstone, Ivanfort, Ivanlynn, Ivangor, etc. all have hatred in their innards even the Dark One, the Slavic Schlut. Don’t be deceived by any appearance of wholesomeness. Much nastiness lurks in many beautiful bosoms.
But, hatred is not the central organizing or driving principle here.
Not even power. Kubla Khan, Genghis Khan, Alexander, Hitler, these were men driven by the lust for power, the desire to control others, as an end in itself. Yes, there was the insatiable need to grab land, to extend territory, to battle endlessly and to kill. Nevertheless, this inherent and driving lust was always in the service of power.
What we have now is the desire to acquire and use power to further the demands of deep-seated greed for money. Maybe even for cruelty, casual unconscionable callousness, for treating others with contempt, for the destruction of trust, beauty, hope and freedom. It is much more like Caligula or Nero than Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius. The reign of the tyrants is upon us. But it is greed, the longing after lucre that drives everything. And it is not a beautiful spectacle.
Medea wouldn’t have understood their kind of hatred. In Medea we have a woman who had crossed from Colchis with Jason of the Argonauts to Corinth. She felt betrayed because Jason agreed to take as his wife Glauce, daughter of Creon. Medea had betrayed her family, killed her brother Absyrtus, and helped Jason to recover the Golden Fleece. All of this for love. She said
I hate my husband, true
but that hate grew understandably out of rejection, abject sorrow, and a comprehensible need for revenge. Out of her hatred she killed Glauce, Creon, and her two sons. The motivation to kill her own two sons was fuelled by anger-
anger, the spring of all life’s horror, masters my resolve,
but the aim as she said to Jason was ‘to break your heart’. Here we have hatred that we can fully understand. But, the hatred of a whole class of people, not of an individual, hatred that does not have as its source a personally explicable basis, points directly at inner corruption in people who HC justifiably called ‘deplorables’.
As for power, Garcia Marquez’s account of Simon Bolivar’s life is an exquisite study of power, more precisely of the disillusion of power.
While they thought he was dying in Pativilca he crossed the Andean peaks again, conquered at Junin, completed the liberation of all Spanish America with the final victory at Ayacucho, created the Republic of Bolivia, and was happier in Lima and more intoxicated with glory than he had ever been before or would ever be again. As a consequence, the repeated announcements that he at last was leaving power and country because of illness, and the formal ceremonies that seemed to confirm them, were no more than idle repetitions of a drama too often seen to be believed
Simon Bolivar’s impetus for power was plain- struggle, battles, relentless and immeasurable delight in conquest, and the control of others for the single-minded purpose of power. And power was ugly.
He had dreamed that a black mule with gold teeth had come inside and gone through the house from the principal reception room to the pantries, eating without haste everything in its path while the family and slaves were taking their siestas, until at last it had eaten the curtains, the rugs, the lamps, the vases, the table service and linen in the dining room, the saints in the altars, the wardrobes and chests with all their contents, the pots in the kitchens, the doors and windows with their hinges and bolts, and all their furniture from the portico to the bedrooms, and the only thing left intact was the oval of his mother’s dressing table mirror, floating in its own space.
The message is- beware, unconstrained, unbridled power ultimately destroys domestic life. The difference between the Great Leader and the General is a simple one. The General was at least trying to unify South America for the good of the people. He was not seeking personal wealth and he did not crave living in palaces. He was at his best, heroic and full of personal courage and at his worst, cunning and cruel but always for a purpose outside of self. The General was a reader too. He read everything from Greek philosophy to treatises on necromancy. That can’t be said of the Great Leader.
The General might very well have read Marcus Aurelius–
Always have these two principles in readiness. First, to do only what the reason inherent in kingly and judicial power prescribes for the benefit of mankind. Second, to change your ground, if in fact there is someone to correct and guide you away from some notion. But this transference must always spring from a conviction of justice or the common good: and your preferred course must be likewise, not simply for apparent pleasure or popularity.
Wise words indeed!
If not hatred or power, what then? Nero whose reputation has come down to us as dissolute at the very least, is less remembered as a performer who craved public attention and adulation, jus as the Great Leader does. Nero sang and acted, and won acting crowns, although it is said that he bribed the judges. What’s new? He was thrown from his ten-horse chariot at the Olympics in AD 67. Nero arranged for the assassination of his mother Agrippina and kicked to death his wife, Poppaea, Even his tutor, Seneca, was not to avoid death by suicide through Nero’s machinations. To know or be close to Nero was dangerous. But, there is no evidence that he was driven by the pursuit of personal wealth against his duty to Rome. It is in this lust after lucre that the Great Leader is distinctive.
Hatred is merely a tool deployed to create space for power. And, power itself to give access to lucre not to the duties, responsibilities and benefits of the commonweald. The Great Leader knows no community, he belongs only to the urgency of the self, by which I mean the indulgences of spittle, semen, urine and faeces. What masquerades as wealth- gold and shiny bangles mean and matter much to the Great Leader just as they do to Magpies.
It is our tragedy that we are living through this diminishment of ideals that foster hope.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
Pericles in the funeral oration for the first Athenians to fall during the Peloponnesian War said
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other…We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.
This speech sets out, eloquently, the Athenian ideal of government and also of day-to-day life. This is the same ideal that continues to fire all Western Democracies until this past month. It is important to note that it is an ideal, something that shines as a goal, something that is not wholly realizable, that escapes all our attempts to totally fulfill as a matter of practical execution. Athenians did not apply this ideal to slaves in their time nor did the founding fathers of the American version apply this to Africans living in the New World. But, since this constitution is an ideal it has the capacity to be expanded to become inclusive so that Africans in the USA, other minorities can become citizens within this description. That is until 20 January 2017.
The new regime, because properly speaking, that is what the Great Leader’s government is, will soon become a junta, if the Great Leader gets his way. The Great Leader has every intention of severing the long link to the Athenian ideal. And the easiest, smoothest road to perdition is by identifying a group, any group as Other, as the enemy. In this way, citizenship, freedom and humanity are stripped from a small group, a minority to start with. But, the ultimate desire is to have total power, to secure authoritarian rule, to govern by Decree and Fiat. Discussion, debate, politics will be abjured. The press is already in the line of fire for standing in the way of despotism. Pericles’ ideal is not the model that the Great Leader seeks. In his vision, being human is not universal, it is only an attribute that people like him possess.
Who is “other” in this scheme? It is much easier to start with anyone with visible difference, a darker shade of melanin will suffice, a different religion, facing east and bowing low, anyone who is not one of us, an “immigrant” perhaps? And why does this despicable method work?
At one level, it is one of the most primitive principles in the animal kingdom, the xenophobic principle (E.O.Wilson).
The sight of an alien bird, for example, energises a flock of Canada geese, evoking a full panoply of threat displays accompanied by repeated mass approaches and retreats…A new bird introduced into an organized [chicken] flock will, unless it is unusually vigorous, suffer attacks for days on end whilst being forced down on to the lowest status.
The human equivalent is well demonstrated in the crowds that gather at the Great Leader’s rallies. That is the level of regression that the Great Leader’s crowds operate at and that’s not surprising- chanting in unison is designed to subjugate the rational senses so that poisonous ideas can take root. You now understand the role of the chant ‘Lock her up’, ‘Build the Wall’ and more recently ‘Fake News’. These are hypnosis inducing techniques that the Great Leader has mastered and uses effectively to great effect upon his self-selected subjects. These are the people who no longer regard themselves as citizens but rather are subjects in the sense of being subject to his powers and menaces. They have given up all authority, all autonomy.
It is true that the xenophobic principle is alive within human groups. Outsiders, no matter how defined are “other” and can be cast as an evil, monolithic force. The language used can dehumanize so that the “other” can be brutally treated, indeed killed without conscience. The systematic work to render all “immigrants” as “other” is ongoing. Next will be transportation, concentration camps, and murder. After all, these are “immigrants” and they are criminals, gang members, who murder and rape our women!
What is astonishing is that this insidious destruction of fealty is being executed in our presence, not at night, on trains away in a remote siding and a camp out of sight, but the assault, on common decency, was carried and is being carried out at airports, both at home and abroad, by perfectly normal and decent people. That’s the surprise and the shame.
Racism and entrenched xenophobia, not as a group phenomenon, but as an individual affliction, a malignant disease currently, like the plague, distempering those close to the Great Leader is another matter all together. You have to imagine the lowest form of self-esteem, think of the sludge at the bottom of a pond or canal, dark, filthy and foetid, then you have a grasp of the inner life of the afflicted. This is a grave condition, near fatal except for the possibility of describing another class (and it has to be a class) of people as not human and therefore without any effort our racists, the Great Leader’s team, can be better than some other human being. This monumental delusion can only be sustained by great effort of will. Hence, the gargantuan energy expended dressing up as Ku Klux Klan, or in the case of Aryan the Younger, wearing a brilliant white shirt, a dark tie, an over tidy hair and an erect stance, a caricature of the SS if there was ever one. But, the best exemplar is the Great Wizard himself, untidy, obese, unshaven, grotesque and deplorable on any scale- he hasn’t the energy to hide or dissemble the foul odours of his inner life. He is recognizably unpleasant. The inner pathology is actually quite simple- we have deep self-hatred that can only be assuaged by the hatred of others.
The Great Leader is in a very different category indeed. Our two-year old feeds on attention, the lust for the limelight is insatiable as is the belief that only his needs matter and sadly that he is the only sentient being in the universe. Allied to this is the unmistakable terror that he does not exist, that only when he occupies central station and is beyond doubt illuminated by the spotlight does he feel alive, just as some people need to self-cut, to see blood flow in order to re-affirm that they are alive and exist. The Great Leader’s lust for the spotlight is a malignant equivalent of this- deprived of this lifeblood, his very being is under threat, hence the impulse to be centre stage, and it does not much matter how this impulse is served. Lying is just one of the many schemes that call attention to the Great Leader. There are, of course, several motivations for the lying, as we say this sickness is over determined as to its origins.
The deep sense of emptiness, the terror of being non-existent, the dread that has no ready name but that is experienced as near annihilation, the impoverished spirit, hollow and already corrupted, and the mask of confidence that is just that, a mask that slips all too easily and that has to be supported by props: an executive table, a pen, paper, a football or baseball cap, mannerisms that are jerky and language that is stripped to mere grunts and single words, eschewing grammar and order. These are the props that mask utter unspeakable terror, an emptiness that clings like spittle to a non-existent self.
And as for relationships, think of the mimicry that infects the likes of Farage and Gove such that they leave their adult and responsible selves behind and pose for photos that undermine their integrity forever. Actually that belittle them, reducing any significance they previous had to no more than mere postscript in history. This mimicry, best described as echopraxia is how the Great Leader has chosen to undermine whatever autonomy these men had before appearing with him in photos.
As for the Vicar’s Daughter, hand in hand, fingers clutching, she was defiled in full view of the world. The Great Leader shows no sign of affection for his consort, except where it is stage-managed. He never or rarely looks at her, never openly seeks her comfort or interest, yet he is hand holding with the Vicar’s Daughter in record time. Think pollution, think moral corruption, think an un-washable stain. The Vicar’s Daughter’s moral rectitude forever compromised.
What can we learn from these encounters? Simply that the Great Leader is a mortally serious disease that seeks to infect and destroy whatever moral compass an individual has. But, that also the Great Leader’s relationships are at considerable risk of moral death. World leaders be warned.
Finally I want to turn to that matter of chaos. I was taught once that the physical three-dimensional world is the visible projection, the instantiated version of an individual’s inner life. And what can we say about the Great Leader from his isolation in the cavernous spaces of the White House, the absence of light, the scrambling for light at night, the need for rivalry and dysfunction between the members of his entourage, the restless frenzy and impetuous twitter finger, the reliance on tabloid sensationalism for information and the disdain for truth, for honest reporting and hunger for triumph and accolade in the face of defeat and dislike. The real uncoordinated, stuttering engine of his reality, all the witnessed impropriety and failures of judgment and the misjudgments and idiosyncrasies, what do they say abut the Great Leader? We can say that these visible chaotic architectures of his manifest physical world are but mere and trivial reflections of the chaos inside. Mind you, the inner chaos is several magnitudes more severe and destructive.
Photos by Jan Oyebode