I was in Paris yesterday. The plan was to go see a movie, perhaps, then join friends at home. The movie schedules meant that had we stayed, we would have returned home after dark, so, we left town early. For once, transport ran smoothly. A peaceful dinner with friends visiting from Montreal and Geneva. Then, the news broke and everyone drifted to the TV room to watch news of the carnage unfold in the 10th and 11th and the Stade de France.
From idyllic Greek islands to the fertile plains of southern Hungary, an avalanche of human misery, deprivation and increasing desperation has massed, gathering momentum, overwhelming the flimsy processing agencies which have proven inadequate to manage the sheer numbers of applicants who are desperate to reach the security of Europe. Twenty thousand are wedged on the picturesque little island of Lesvos, west of the Turkish coast. Crossing the Libyan desert, paying out their life savings to unscrupulous and cynically passionless bounty hunters for a square foot of space on an unseaworthy little boat, many have perished en route in the greatest mass migration since the end of the Second World War. Some are escaping persecution because their brand of Islam is insufficiently jihadist. Others are fleeing because they are Christian, hence targets for persecution, imprisonment, or worse. Others have been bled dry by incompetent and corrupt governments incapable of performing the one single task justifying their existence, that of looking after and protecting their citizenry. Some just want to work and find a better life for them and their children. Still others may have a more nefarious agenda, to infiltrate the land of the kuffar and plot its takeover. They are given names like ‘economic migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ to attempt to distinguish and classify them, to decide whether or not they have a right to be here.
Of a party from Eritrea who all left together, almost one hundred and forty souls, bound for Europe, twenty survived. People are dying in trucks, bodies are washing up on Turkish beaches, dead as starfish. So many stories, making all of us sit down, appalled, and ask what we, or our government can and should do.
The sheer scale of the invasion and its rapidity this summer has taken everyone unawares. It is naive to criticise the use of the word ‘invasion’, since so many are using ingenious means to circumvent the authorities. Agencies are supposed to fingerprint new arrivals at their place of entry but some migrants do not wish to settle in Italy or Greece, where processing them could take months, even years, and the social security packages are paltry compared to those offered in Scandinavia. So, they burn their fingers with lighters or use the liquid goo from a burned plastic bag to make their fingerprints unreadable. Such is the scale of the problem, the authorities simply wave them on so the next country in the chain can take responsibility for them. Fake passports are on sale in Rome to make journeying easier.
An Egyptian billionaire has offered to buy an island from Greece or Italy to house everybody temporarily until they can be processed. A brave idea, but not one which many of the hopeful travellers would be prepared to invest in, I suspect. After all, islands have been prisons for centuries.
Why is it that Germany seems to be welcoming so many? Perhaps it is, brutally, a matter of demographics. The German population is shrinking, and there are less able-bodied and, above all, young workers to keep the industrial wheels turning with legendary German efficiency. Cynical as it seems, the Germans may have hit the motherlode by tapping in to a source of cheap labour for a generation, whose taxes will pay for an increasing number of pensioners in their system, assuming, of course, that new arrivals will be able, indeed willing to assimilate and not huddle in racist ghettoes as exist in parts of France. The rightist Government in Hungary, however, whose demographic problems are not dissimilar, is building a fence along its border with Serbia to just keep them out. A Syrian lawyer desperate to reach Germany, scrambled under its razor wire, leaving a bright, bloody trail behind him. The Slovaks are only admitting Christians, not Muslims; they can thank ISIS, bin Laden and all the other bloodthirsty crazies for that. And, how many are the GCC countries, the ideological home for Muslim refugees, taking? None. Not one. Someone should be asking them some hard questions.
As Angela Merkel pointed out, the world is watching us. How we deal with this as governments and individuals will speak volumes to those who detest our democracies and spit on our way of life.
A government has the moral responsibility to protect the welfare of its citizens. At the same time, each individual has the responsibility to love his neighbor. Many of us will shortly have new neighbors with strange, unfamiliar customs, curious, unintelligible speech, different social norms. We can choose to tread this unknown territory of rapprochement with fear, as children who fear the dark, the unknown, or, we can take firm hold of our own heritage, confident in its ability to protect us emotionally and spiritually to reach out, one-on-one and in our groups, to do justice, love kindness and, above all else, remember mercy.
A long time ago, I used to take people on school trips. The comfortable chairs in the Greenwich Planetarium, elevated for skyward viewing, plus Heather Couper’s delectably seductive voice gently steering everyone through a year of constellations, is a fond, if hazy memory. Planetarium in the morning, plus waxy Astronomers Royal in fusty eighteenth century clothing peering into telescopes, followed by the National Maritime Museum or the Cutty Sark after lunch in the Park.
Hamlet’s ‘brave, o’erhanging firmament’ has always held a certain wide-eyed fascination. As a jobbing physicist who has taught astrophysics as examination fodder, I know what a Cepheid variable is. I know about apparent and absolute magnitude. The fate of the Sun as it expands into a Red Giant – not a problem. As to being asked, off the cuff, where Betelgeuse is tonight, no clue. Not one.
|Celestron Skymaster 25×70 binoculars|
I had made up my mind that when I retired, I’d learn a bit more, principally because in the South light pollution is at a minimum and on clear nights the frosty ripple of the Milky Way is clearly visible and thousands of bright objects, some bluish, some red, keep watch during the night hours. Further north in Paris, the atmosphere is less forgiving but there’s still plenty to capture the imagination.
Turns out, astronomers were Internet junkies almost from its inception. There’s quite a body of astronomical knowledge out there and a very long observational history since people have been gazing heavenward in awe and wonder pretty much since we left off fraternising with the Neanderthals and struck out on our own. Ptolemy of Alexandria lived 1900 years ago and his geocentric model of the Universe remained virtually unchallenged until Copernicus. My hero, for quite a number of reasons was the guy we always address by his first name, Galileo. Apart from standing up to the Pope – stout fellow for that – he was an observer of the heavens, which I am trying in some small way to become. Heeding the advice of seasoned astronomers, therefore, I have equipped myself with a decent pair of bins rather than a full-fledged Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, since I’d like to get a bit of practice finding stuff before I waste a ton of money on the optics. A camera tripod completes the setup, for now, since holding a pair of 25×70’s still is a near-impossibility.
Tonight, I’m hoping the clouds roll away to reveal Jupiter who will be in “full moon” phase when it ( or is it ‘he’)reaches closest opposition tonight, a mere eight hundred and fifty million kilometres away, rising east-north-east and remaining visible all night until setting around sunrise, exactly like a full moon. As I write, he’s there, peeping shyly out from behind the neighbours’ winter trees with moons trailing behind in a line, like the tail of a kite.
Just at sunset, facing the other way, Venus is bright in the southwestern sky, fading Mars a little higher and more to the west. Perhaps I‘ll catch a glimpse as she settles down behind the tree-line.
|Winter moon with Jupiter, 2008 (naked eye)|
The Universe is a panorama in space and time. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, barely visible amid atmospheric pollution at this early hour tonight on the southeastern horizon and just over eight light years away. We see her as she was, eight years ago. Most of what we see and beyond vision is aeons older; of the three brightly diagonal stars in Orion’s Belt, the middle one is twice as far away than either of its neighbours, the light from it left it a few years after the Resurrection. I found it interesting that in M42 – the nebula in Orions’ Sword, just visible with the naked eye – still has unnamed stars in it. Fascinating.
The ancients believed that the firmament was a blanket covering the Earth at night. Imperfections in the blanket produced starlight, where the light of Heaven shone through.
Stargazing has a habit of bringing one down to size – the vastness of space, extending almost fourteen billion light years is, in some small way, comprehensible by a life form made of twisted nucleic acid and protein with the capacity to wonder at it.
|A fat French bloke|
Haven’t been down South at this time of year for a while. Last year, I was wrestling with an unfinished apartment in George Street, Jerusalem and the year before, Paris. So, the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, leaf mould, blocked guttering and all the other little idiosyncrasies of a seven-acre plot all added up to a spot of Hard Labour. All the tasks that one could never find time for, delicately procrastinated into the sweet bye and bye descended like the Assyrian hordes, all at once.
It’s been raining here. Rather a lot, as it happens. The high water table on the elevated parts of the land means that when there’s a deluge, it all finds its way south, carving pathways through stones and gravel. For weeks we had quite a few streams that moated the house, all of them having gathered momentum higher up, lifting stones the size of basketballs. In short, instead of delicate indentations in the unmade road, we now had ruts the depth of trashcans making visitors with low slung vehicles nervous. Gipsy with her usual optimistic insouciance airily brushed aside the task, claiming a few barrows of rubble would fix the problem, at least for the time being. I listened, gloomily, envisaging slashed tyres and broken axles followed by a requirement of lorryloads of gravel. Where’s some slave labour when you need it? I reminded myself that the place wasn’t Downton Abbey, rolled up my sleeves and started shovelling, pushing images of prisoners in labour camps to the back of my mind. G, being a solidly built creature, hauled and shoved with me and at least a few of the ruts are passably filled in. I recalled the Rule of St Benedict and smiled grimly.
Having a pool with pretty underwater lighting is delightful. In July. Having to bed it down for the winter involves a little delicate chemistry, plus encasement in its winter coat. Scorning all assistance, when G had gone on some small errand – nail varnish, as I recall, being on the list – I elected to unwrap the robustly constructed made to measure cover, all fifty-five square metres of it, and put it on unassisted. There were regrettable outbreaks of bad language, unheard except by local wildlife. I’m surprised they didn’t turn up to watch. I won’t go into detail, it’s too painful. G returned from her shopping trip, took one look at my sweat-sodden face and remarked “It’s the wrong way round.” Indeed it was. I had been attempting to force it to be the right way round for some time. She and I then unhooked it from its retaining divots or whatever they’re called, folded it, turned it, and on it went like a well-tailored suit.
The pool house door doesn’t shut. I am confident that with a little bit of paring with a wickedly sharp Swiss Army knife, any swelling can be expeditiously removed. The number for the ambulance is in the book and if I survive without too much blood loss, I’m going back to Paris.
This isn’t altogether my own. In fact, it’s shamelessly plagiarised from somewhere or other with a bit of my own creative editing to bring it up to date. To the individual who first produced it in an obviously gin-sodden haze, I raise a metaphorical ‘l’chaim’ to you.
From a pillar of British journalism. The facts on the ground.
“The unrest began last Tuesday when Hamas announced that the number of virgins a suicide bomber or other mujahid would receive after his death will be cut by 25% after Eid, from 72 to 54. The rationale for the cut was the increase in recent months of the number of battlefield casualties whose sacrifice falls into the ‘martyrdom’ category and a subsequent shortage of virgins in the afterlife. Other terrorist groups followed suit, including ISIL and Hizbullah. The subsequent demonstrations stopped short of burning Palestinian flags, so a few Israeli ones were burnt instead.
The suicide bombers’ union, the British Organization of Occupational Martyrs (or B.O.O.M.) responded with a statement that this was unacceptable to its members and immediately balloted for strike action. General Secretary Anjem Choudary (no relation) told the Press: ‘Our members are literally working themselves to death in the cause of jihad. We don’t ask for much in return but to be treated like this is like a kick in the teeth.’
Speaking from his five-bedroomed house paid for with jizya from the British taxpayer, he explained: ‘We sympathise with our workers’ concerns but we are not in a position to meet their demands. They are not accepting the realities of modern-day jihad in a competitive marketplace.’
‘Thanks to Western depravity, especially in London, there is now a chronic shortage of virgins in the afterlife. It’s a straight choice between reducing expenditure and laying people off. I don’t like cutting wages but I’d hate to have to tell several thousand of my staff that they won’t be able to blow themselves up.’ Spokespersons for the union in the Northeast of England, the city of Aberdeen, the whole of Ireland, Wales and the entire Australian continent stated that the strike would not affect their operations as “..there are no virgins in our areas anyway”.
Most of my life, man and boy, has been spent shuffling around between libraries and classrooms, optimistically hunting down scraps and titbits to add to the rambling neural labyrinths somewhere inside my head. I’m not being vain or superior, the fact is, we all do it, to a greater or lesser extent. Not the shuffling part, let me be clear, but the finding out part. It’s relatively uncomplicated to amass facts, Dickensianly unconnected, and preen oneself at cocktail parties because one can pronounce the capital city of Burkina Faso correctly. It’s a little bit more difficult to actually think for oneself, which is, after all, the holy grail of the educator. If my students simply outgrow me, I’ve done my job and led them forth with enough mental apparatus to make a difference in the world.
|My alma mater 1964-1969|
I was taught English literature by a master of his craft. English public schools throw up such people from time to time and one is indeed fortunate if such a one crosses one’s path. He taught us, we gormless, pustular clods, to recognise type and similarity in a story. One term we were doing Lear. He asked us whether the story reminded us of anything. We sat in stupefied silence. He blew gently through his pipe and asked whether any of us had been read to as children. Hands went up, shiftily. He then asked, with sarcasm both weighty and painful whether any of us had, perhaps, come across a story about two bitchy sisters and their kind sibling who was bullied and humiliated just for being good, the story of Cinderella. Ah. When studying ‘The Clerk’s Tale’, Chaucer’s story was easily transposed into ‘A Winter’s Tale’ where tormented wives suffered unreasonable treatment at their husbands’ hands.
I was, of course, privileged beyond peradventure. Which is, I suppose, why I find myself outraged to the point of foaming homicide when a collection of rag-tag, brutal peasants in a town in northern Nigeria take it upon themselves not just to deny young girls the chance to think for themselves but have the unconscionable savagery to attempt to blame their perverted, vomitous behaviour on a tattered piece of fiction masquerading as religious literature and the halfwitted ramblings of its ignorant interpreters. These girls have become spoils of war and may even now be locked down in some disgustingly filthy hovel where their captors feel themselves entitled to use them for whatever obscene and grotesque purpose their shrivelled intellects can devise.
I do not normally find myself wishing ill upon any of my fellow-travellers on this planet. But, the head of this pernicious organisation, twitching manically and mumbling into the camera, is of a very different stripe as he threatens to sell the captive girls at the market. The video clip should be watched, disturbing as it undoubtedly is, so that the whole world sees what happens to people who have been overtaken by a dangerous religious mania. It should most especially be watched by those who seem to imagine themselves guiltless since they are only paying for the continued existence of this appalling, diabolical sect.
I am short on charity for the leader of Boko Haram, despite clear evidence of his mental unravelling. He stands for every twisted inversion of everything I have spent my life promoting and were he to be captured, and were I in charge of his sentencing, I would ensure that he lived long and had ample opportunity to listen to the howling voices in his head. Without interruption from his fellows. For an awfully long time.
The Ark looks like a gigantic floating wardrobe, as improbably buoyant as this Seine river boat, into which the pachyderms and reptiles lumber, swarm and slither in their multitudes, settling into their prearranged spaces as if by orchestral direction, obediently sleeping, anesthetized with a smoke-wreathed censer, as birds swirl satisfyingly inwards.
It’s fictional. It’s a movie. References to Gnostic thinking, whispers of Kabbala notwithstanding, it’s just Hollywood and it will no more bring people closer to God than the next incarnation of X-men. The Icelandic landscapes are satisfyingly primitive and the special effects remarkable. We briefly wonder where all the wood is going to come from in a barren volcanic wasteland until the miraculous growth of a forest, the “fountains of the great deep” explosively funnel water upwards as the deluge pours down, but the best