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.