Mediterranean with Simon Reeve – BBC 2

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Money laundering in Malta, Mafiosi in Calabria, olive blights in Puglia, cave dwellers in Basilicata and blood feuds in Albania, not to mention pelican hunting and turtles swallowing plastic.  Then, in the second episode, the partition of Cyprus, Christian refugees in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “terrorist Disneyland”, Israeli desalination plants, and recycled bricks in the Gaza Strip.  Well, this is definitely a different view of the Mediterranean.  It’s been extremely interesting so far, and there are still two episodes to come.  It’s also been rather worrying.

No-one uses the term “Levant” any more, do they?  It used to be a term for the Eastern Mediterranean.  Then it came to mean parts of the Middle East.  It’s quite telling that there aren’t really any words in common usage that refer to both European countries and Middle Eastern/North African countries: it’s as if people can no longer think of them as having anything in common.  The term “Maghreb” is used for the North African Mediterranean countries, and, when we say “Mediterranean countries”, we generally just mean European countries bordering the Mediterranean.  It’s sad, really.  I was made extremely welcome in Egypt (2007), Israel (2008) and Morocco (2010).   Do most of in the West even think of the Middle East and North Africa when we hear the term “Mediterranean”?

And even the image of the European Mediterranean as one big holiday resort, sun, sand and sangria, is well wide of the mark, as this programme set out to show.  It wasn’t exactly cheerful, but it didn’t pretend to be.  Simon Reeve can actually be quite annoying, because he’s so determined to get his personal political views in there.  Obviously he’s entitled to his views, as everyone is, but he’s making travel programmes for the supposedly neutral BBC, not political broadcasts.  Having said which, he’s genuinely enthusiastic and genuinely entertaining, and his programmes are always very watchable.

The series kicked off with Malta.  The George Cross island.  Very popular holiday resort. But now, sadly, a major centre for money laundering.  There’s been quite a bit in the news about this.  Low tax rates have attracted all sorts of businesses there, and some of them are more than a bit shady.  Dodgy goings on with gambling. Sales of passports.  It’s now been two years since investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, after exposing corruption at the highest levels of government there.  Something’s seriously rotten there.  It didn’t make for pleasant viewing.

The role of the Mafia in Sicily and parts of the southern Italian mainland is far better known.  It’s unfortunately got quite a glamorous image in the West, thanks to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino!  Great film, but it really isn’t glamorous at all.  Simon went for a change from the Sicilian Mafia, and instead told us about the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia, said to control 3% of the Italian economy, and now the most powerful Mafia group in Italy.  They’re not even just in Italy: they operate all over.  They’re the ones linked with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty II, the subject of another recent TV series.  They are super-powerful.  And they’ve got an incredible underground warren of tunnels, big enough for cars to use as well as people.  It’s like something out of a James Bond film, but it’s real life.  Frightening stuff.

Frightening in a different way were the tales of Xylella, the blight affecting olive groves in the Puglia region of Italy, and of the turtles being affected by all the plastic in the Italian part of the Mediterranean.  People were in tears as they told Simon of the effect that Xylella’s having on olive groves that have been there for centuries.  Parts of Spain and France have also been affected.  It’s very worrying, and, as yet, there’s no effective solution.

Seeing turtles who’ve almost choked on plastic was distressing as well, but at least something can be done about that.  Simon spoke to two people who are running a turtle sanctuary, and it was heartening to see one turtle being released back into the sea after being effectively treated.  Plastic pollution’s big news at the moment.  Maybe something will be done about it.  Efforts are at least being made.  Matera, Basilicata was a symbol of hope as well – as recently as the 1950s, people were living in caves there, in one of Italy’s most deprived areas.  But times have changed, and it’s now enjoying quite a boom.  I gather that there is some concern about Disneyfication, especially as the caves have been used as a film set on several occasions, but the horrific poverty is hopefully a thing of the past.   More positive news came from Albania, where the hunting of pelicans has been banned – although unfortunately it’s still legal elsewhere, notably Egypt and Lebanon – and pelicans are now thriving in huge wetland lagoons.

But the other section on Albania was just horrifying.  I’ve heard about the blood feuds there, but I don’t think I realised before just what the practical effects can be on people’s lives.  These blood feuds between families go on and on for generations.  It sounds like something out of the Middle Ages, but it’s still going on.  We were told the horrendous story of a teenage boy who cannot leave his house for fear that members of a family embroiled in a longstanding blood feud with his family, over something that happened decades ago, might kill him.  Just a young lad – just a kid.   He was sat there, doing his schoolwork – he’s being home-schooled, by a visiting teacher, because he daren’t risk leaving the house to go to school – and talking about how he wants to play football and his favourite player’s Ronaldo, like any young lad might.  He can’t leave the house in case someone murders him.  He’s “in blood”.  And he’s hardly the only one.  Many, many people in northern Albania are in the same position.  In Europe, in 2018.  Bloody hell.

It’s a far cry from the image of “the Mediterranean” as a place of sunny beach resorts … but that’s the whole idea of this series.

The first episode was, whilst troubling, free of controversy.  Hopefully, most people aren’t going to come up with any arguments in favour of organised crime, money laundering, pursuing blood feuds and destroying wildlife.  The second episode was different.  First up, Cyprus.  Simon spoke to both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and also to British UN peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone in the middle of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided city.  There was a barricade literally in the street.

I was expecting to hear Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots calling each other, but what I wasn’t expecting was everything that was said about the tensions within the Turkish zone.  This isn’t something that’s been widely reported here.  Comments were made about the frustration of being cut off from the rest of the world, and of everything having to be routed through Turkey, but more worrying was the “social engineering”, as Simon put it, being carried out by the Turkish government.  I’ve got considerable sympathy with the reasons for the 1974 invasion, but not with this.  Thousands of people from Turkey, mainly from rural areas where the culture is conservative and strictly Islamic, are being offered incentives to settle in Turkish Cyprus, and the government’s funding the building of mosques.  The native culture of Turkish Cyprus is far more secular and liberal.  This is quite frightening, given what we know about Erdogan’s regime in Turkey.  I really hadn’t expected that.

Then on to Lebanon.  I thought this was going to be all about Beirut, but it wasn’t – we got some fascinating shots of an ancient Maronite monastery.  I was fortunate enough to visit a Coptic monastery in Egypt in 2007, and there’s something quite special about Middle Eastern monasteries.  They just … go way back.  But the Coptic Christians of Egypt are being increasingly persecuted, and so are Christians in Syria and Iraq.  It was interesting to hear about the influx of Christians into Lebanon, but also rather upsetting.   This is a huge problem now.  It’s not so long since most of the countries of the Middle East had sizeable Jewish and Christian populations.  Things are very different now.  It’s not good.

Worse came when he headed south, into the area controlled by Hezbollah.  And they really do control it – “a state within a state”.  He visited an extremely strange “tourist attraction” which Hezbollah have spent $20 million building – the “terrorist Disneyland”.  Full of spoils of war from the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.  Talk about gruesome.  And at least you can cross the border between the two parts of Cyprus.  To get from Lebanon to Israel, he had to travel via Jordan.

The Israeli section of the trip was actually far more positive.  We saw people enjoying themselves on the beaches in Tel Aviv, and we heard about the technologies which Israel’s developed for extracting gas from the Mediterranean and for turning sea water into drinking water.  We hear about desalination plants in the Gulf sometimes, but I hadn’t heard much about those in Israel before.  The Israeli processes are very energy efficient, and don’t use chemicals.  Impressive.

The point was made that Israel, because of the issues with its land borders, is more reliant on the Mediterranean than probably any other country.  99% of its imports arrive by sea.  99%!   It’s obvious when you think about it, because they’re hardly going to arrive via Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or even Egypt; but I’d never really thought about it before.  One of the Israelis interviewed said that Israel felt like an island.  It wasn’t dissimilar to what Turkish Cypriots had said about feeling cut off.  All this conflict, around what we think of as a sea for swimming in and cruising through.

And from Israel to the Gaza Strip.  Going through a very long and strange border crossing, Simon said it felt like being dehumanised and going into a cage.

Since 2007, land border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides are closed, and a sea and air blockade’s been enforced by the Israeli authorities, with buffer zones existing along the borders with both Israel and Egypt.   The concerns about terrorism are quite understandable – the BBC guys, travelling in an armoured car because Westerners are at risk of kidnap there, were rather perturbed to be told that they’d just passed an Islamic Jihad post – but the blockade’s taking a terrible toll on civilians there.

However, there’s still some hope.  Simon spoke to an engineer – a female engineer, I’m pleased to say! – who’s invented a type of brick made of recycled coal and wood ask, to circumvent the problem of import restrictions.  She’s doing a great job.  And yet she’s hampered by constant shortages of electricity.  And the fishermen to whom he spoke next said that there are no fish within nine miles of the coast, but that they aren’t allowed to sail beyond six miles of the coast.  They didn’t seem to feel that there was much hope.  It’s a horrible mess.

Simon said that he didn’t want to take sides, and that he just feels terribly sad to think of all the opportunities for peace that haven’t been taken.  I think a lot of us would go with that.  It’s a very distressing situation.  So are most of the others covered so far in this series.  Crime.  Blood feuds.  Environment damage.  War, terrorism, dangerous borders.  It’s not really what we associate with the Mediterranean – and that’s the point of this programme, and it really is including some very interesting material – the final two episodes will presumably bring more of the same – and making the viewer think long and hard about it all.  Well done to Simon Reeve and the BBC for drawing attention to all of these situations.  This series is well worth watching.

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The Flu That Killed 50 Million – BBC 2

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We all know that Manchester does things better than London, but, in this tragic case, it’s not really a reason to smile. When Spanish flu swept across the country in 1918, the medical authorities in Manchester took steps to try to stop it from spreading.  Whilst still affected, our city therefore suffered considerably less than other cities did.  Meanwhile, the idiots in Westminster did very little, for fear of affecting munitions production and causing a panic that would affect morale.  What, and letting a highly contagious pandemic rage unchecked didn’t cause any problems?!  228,000 people died in the UK alone.  Maybe that number would have been far less had something been done about it.  I expected this programme to make me feel sad.  It did, but it also made me feel angry.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. It could have killed as many as 100 million people: no-one really knows.  It’s thought that around 500 million people caught the flu – and, due to the interaction between the virus that caused it and the immune system, healthy young to middle-aged adults were the most likely to die.  It first seems to have broken out in Kansas, in late January 1918, with a second wave then beginning in Massachusetts (Wikipedia says, although the programme didn’t, that the second, even more severe, strain also appeared in Brittany and Sierra Leone at around the same time) in September 1918.  Nobody’s sure where the virus actually originated: there are various theories.  And it spread pretty much right across the world, even to remote areas.  Then it seems to have mutated into normal flu, and the pandemic ended fairly quickly.  But so many people had died, and so many survivors had lost loved ones.

Of course, this coincided with the final year of the Great War. People thought that, finally, it’s over, we’ve survived, we can try to get on with their lives – and then this happened.  Celebrations of the Armistice were breeding grounds for the flu, all those people in close proximity.  And one of the main reasons it spread so quickly was that so many people were on the move because of the war.

Many British (including, at that time, Irish) troops falling ill were brought home to be treated. Did it not occur to anyone just what a bad idea that was?  This was 1918, not 1348: people understood about infection.  Little was known about viruses at that time, so doctors and scientists weren’t able to isolate the cause of the flu and find anything to try to counter it – keeping people warm and giving them Bovril was mentioned, sadly not really much help – but how can it have been considered a good idea to move people around when they had a highly contagious disease?  Healthy troops coming home on leave also carried the virus with them.  A map showed how it spread from the Channel ports across the country.  As with most contagious diseases, densely-populated, overcrowded areas were hit worst.

On 29 September 2018, USS Leviathan, carrying 11,000 people, left New York for France. By the time she reached Brest, around 2,000 people were ill, with the deadly second strain of the flu, and 80 had died. Patients were carried on shore: there are reports of a convoy four miles long.  The programme was done partly as a docu-drama, and the representation of conditions on the ship was just horrific – talk about a plague ship.

Why was the ship allowed to dock? Why wasn’t it put into quarantine?  Why weren’t arrangements made to try to treat people on board?   I don’t know: maybe leaving healthy people on there would have been cruel – but couldn’t some sort of arrangements for isolation have been made?  Maybe it just wasn’t practical.  Or maybe they wanted to get the healthy soldiers off the ship and to the Front – that’s the one explanation that does make some sort of sense, I suppose.  Ships travelling all over the place carried the disease with them.

Going back to the first wave of infection, the flu reached Manchester in June 2018. James Niven, the local Medical Officer of Health, kept detailed records and statistics of the spread of the flu.  It was worse on the north side of the city, my side, more densely populated and more industrialised.  A graphic showed the flu moving from the city centre, where it’d arrived at the railway stations, into the outskirts and suburbs.  It was very strange and frightening seeing it moving across North Manchester, my home turf, right through the areas where most of the older people I knew as a kid would have been living in 1918.

Thanks to Dr Niven, steps were taken in Manchester to try to reduce the spread of the disease. Leaflets were distributed, posters put up, and a film called “Dr Wise” shown at cinemas, advising people how to reduce the risk of infection.  Schools, Sunday schools and some places of entertainment were closed.  OK, there were still many cases and many deaths locally. The programme followed the story of a young girl called Ada Berry.  Her entire family caught the flu.  She survived – and lived to be 99 – but her parents and brother both died.  Many others died too – to the extent that there was a backlog of funerals, because there weren’t enough coffins or enough gravediggers to keep up with the number of deaths.  But the pandemic was definitely much less severe here than it was in other cities.  Had even those steps been taken everywhere, things wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as they were.

But the powers that be in London – and, whilst public health matters were still dealt with at local level at the time, orders from the central government would have applied nationwide – decided that no steps should be taken to try to stop the flu spreading, on the grounds that suspending public transport, closing factories etc would have affected the war effort (and the spread of the flu didn’t??), and wouldn’t even go as far as Niven did, closing schools and places of entertainment, and even just advising people on what precautions might help them, because of concerns about the effect on morale. Apparently (although this wasn’t mentioned in the programme) the Cabinet didn’t even discuss it until Lloyd George himself caught it, in the September, and it wasn’t brought up in Parliament until the end of October.  There had actually been plans in place for dealing with an epidemic, but they weren’t brought into force.  I understand that difficult choices have to be made in wartime, but it’s hard not to think that the authorities got this one very badly wrong indeed.

And it wasn’t just the British authorities. The reason for the name “Spanish flu”, when the pandemic actually started in Kansas and affected many other countries before it reached Spain – killing, amongst others, King Alfonso XIII – was that the press in neutral Spain were able to report in detail on what was going on, whereas the press in combatant countries, on both sides, said very little.  And, when the second, and far more deadly, strain of the flu broke out, in an American army camp, a doctor who wanted to seal the camp off to stop the disease from spreading was shouted down by his superior.  The Australian authorities, by contrast, refused to allow any ships at all to dock in their country until the pandemic was over.  OK, it wasn’t really practical for every country in the world to try to seal itself off, but surely more could have been done.

Sadly Dr Niven’s story didn’t end happily. He did a huge amount to improve public health in Manchester: the death rate per 1,000 population almost halved during his term of office.  And he was recognised for his work, during his lifetime.  But he suffered from depression after he retired, and ended up taking his own life.  What a tragedy.

The Ministry of Health, now the Department of Health and Social Care was set up as a result of the pandemic. It was also mentioned that female doctors came to the fore whilst all this was going on.  We didn’t hear about the long-term effects of the pandemic in other countries, but there’s only so much you can say in an hour.  Quite a bit of that hour, especially at the end, was spent talking about what lessons can be learnt from the events of 1918, and what might happen if a similar virus took hold today.  Without wishing to sound complacent, I’m not quite sure what the point of that was, seeing as medical science today is so much more advanced as to make comparisons with 1918 rather inappropriate.  Having said which, as the programme – which seemed determined to scare the hell out of viewers, telling us that 200,000 people would be killed in the UK if a virus with a similar infection rate and similar fatality rate took hold – pointed out, new viruses do seem to appear from nowhere, and then mutate.

I could really have done without that bit. Those killed by the 1918 pandemic deserve to be remembered, without either scaremongering or trying to make their experience relevant to the present day.  Whilst it’s important to learn from the past, there’s no need to try to make everything about today – like that bizarre programme last year which tried to turn the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses into a discussion about the wretched European Union.  As we mark the centenary of the end of the Great War, let’s also spare some thoughts for those killed by the Spanish flu.

There’s a book called Song of Songs, by the late Beverley Hughesdon (also from North Manchester!), about a Great War nurse.  It’s not the best book ever – some of it’s very odd – but there’s a section in it in which the main character says that she feels as if vengeance thinks it’s been cheated by the end of the war, so it’s played its trump card – the flu pandemic.  That’s how it must have felt.  What a horrible, horrible time – and how frustrating to think that the government could have taken steps to ameliorate it, and chose not to do so.

Albert: The Power Behind Victoria – Channel 5

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This was very watchable, and impressively accurate by Channel 5’s standards. I don’t know why it claimed to be telling an “unknown story”, given that it didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said a zillion times before – although it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone describe Prince Albert and Sir Robert Peel as having had a “bromance” (I love that idea!) – but it was still interesting.  What have Channel 5 got against Queen Victoria, though?  First, they showed that series which wildly exaggerated the tension between her and her children, and then, in this, they pretty much made out that she was hysterical and unstable.  Give the woman a break.   Be virtually imprisoned by your mother until you’re eighteen, and then produce seven children in nine and a half years (and another two later), and I think most people would be a little less than cool, calm and collected.

I think Queen Victoria must have been really worried about people thinking she was unstable. There are various theories about what caused George III’s problems, and I still go with the porphyria theory even though a lot of people don’t, but, at the time, it would just have been classed as “madness”.  Given the 18th and 19th century ideas about the “taint” of hereditary madness, any sort of irrational behaviour in his descendants – and Victoria was certainly temperamental, and prone to some extreme reactions – would have caused mutterings.  She’d have been so upset by this programme L .

I myself could well have done without all the comments about hysteria and instability and the suggestions that politicians preferred to deal with Albert because Victoria was “unstable”, not to mention the remarks about Victoria being entirely reliant on her husband. It sounded more like a run-through of some of the main arguments put forward against women’s suffrage than anything else.  OK, there was some element of truth in it, but it wasn’t half exaggerated – just as much of what was in Queen Victoria and her Tragic Family was exaggerated.

The stuff about Prince Albert, though, was fairly good – even if it was by no means “an untold story”. It was presented as a docu-drama, which seems to be the “in” format these days, and is more entertaining than the old-bloke-sat-behind-desk format.  I’m not sure why they had to give young Albert such a weird hat and haircut, though.  He looked more like Windy Miller from Camberwick Green than a handsome prince!  We got all the usual stuff about him initially being unpopular and seen as a scrounger, kicking out Baroness Lehzen, Osborne House, Balmoral, Christmas – as was pointed out, Albert didn’t actually introduce Christmas trees to Britain, but he probably can be credited with popularising the idea of the cosy family Christmas that we still know and love today! – and his closeness to his eldest daughter.  The presenters did seem determined to show Albert as an ideal father, in contrast to Victoria who was shown as being a rather cold mother, and jealous of Albert’s relationships with their children.  Victoria certainly wasn’t going to win any mother of the year awards, but I’m not sure that Albert would exactly have been up for father of the year either.  The Prince of Wales certainly wouldn’t have thought so.  The term “control freak” springs to mind!  But not according to Channel 5.

OK, the way they presented the personal stuff wasn’t great! Much better was what they said about Albert’s contribution to public life.  This was the great age of progress, reform, improvement … all those Victorian ideas.  Science and industry – not only the advances themselves, but the way people got on with them.  Contrast the way in which railways sprang up all over the country with today, when it takes the councils months just to fill in a pothole!   And the idea of civic duty – think Josephine Butler and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, or  Elizabeth Fry and her campaign for prison reform, or all the girls’ schools (like the one I went to) founded in northern cities by local bigwigs, not as businesses but out of a sense of public duty.  Think the Co-operative Movement, and the friendly societies. Athenaeums.  Public libraries.  Victorians really got on with things!  All right, all right, none of those examples involved Prince Albert, but that was the sort of culture that he was involved in promoting.

Random thought. If Robert Peel hadn’t died in 1850, relatively young, might Albert’s work have been a bit less London-centric?   The programme went on about the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the V&A, etc – yes, all very nice, but all in That London.  OK, railways made it easier for people to travel to London from elsewhere in the country, but Albert doesn’t seem to’ve made too much effort to get involved with projects anywhere else.  Hmm.

On a more positive note, it was pointed out – and this was also shown in the ITV drama series Victoria – that he first made his mark, particularly impressing Sir Robert Peel, with a speech at an Anti-Slavery convention.  The history of abolitionism in Britain, the US and elsewhere is fascinating, and very important: it was probably the first big “cause”.  Incidentally, it should be remembered that Prince Albert arguably stopped Britain from being dragged into a war with the United States in 1861.  But, whilst it would have been a step too far for the Queen herself to have addressed the meeting,  it was considered quite appropriate for her husband to do so, and also for Robert Peel to be at the meeting – and this was at a time when, obviously, slavery was still legal in several places, notably the United States and Brazil.  Royals have their wings clipped now, and, to some extent, political leaders do too.  Be diplomatic.  Imagine a senior politician today making a speech like Gladstone’s “bag and baggage” one.  But Albert was able to speak out about the number one cause of the day.  And he did.

He got involved with so much else, as well – as a “support and patron”, as the programme said, but royal support and patronage does such a lot to boost any cause. And a lot of it was in really unfashionable areas.  Calling him “a champion of the working classes” was probably exaggerating, but his interest in improving public sanitation is well-known, and hardly the sort of thing people would have expected a prince to be getting involved with.  I think it was reasonably fair comment to say that he made some of these causes “mainstream” – although people like Edwin Chadwick (three cheers for the Mancunian!) and James Kay-Shuttleworth (from Rochdale) had been calling for improvements in living conditions for the working classes long before Prince Albert came along.  The programme didn’t mention them.

And the Great Exhibition was probably his greatest triumph. All the nastiness and sneering in the press, trying to knock something down before it’d even got going, saying it was going to be a waste of time and money – some things never change, do they?!    That was where the money for the museums came from.  Yes, it made a huge surplus – funny how that rarely seems to happen with big public projects these days!  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.  The programme sadly, though, failed to mention one of the most important things about the Exhibition, that it had the world’s first modern pay toilets, for which you had to spend a penny, hence the expression.  Sorry, that’s really lowering the tone, isn’t it?!  It did mention that cheap tickets were available, so people from all classes were able to attend.  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.

How much did Prince Albert influence the world we live in today? It’s very hard to say.  He was a part of something: he didn’t create the Victorian world.  But he certainly played a huge part in it.

And did he work himself into an early grave? We still don’t know how he died, and we probably never will.  Typhoid fever from bad drains, the original version?  Stomach cancer?  Crohn’s Disease, as suggested in this programme?  Coupled with obsessive overwork, weakening his health.  Very sad.

He was 42. His son-in-law, Emperor Frederick III of Germany, died at 56.  He had 14 years longer than Albert but, as his father lived to be 90, he only had 88 days as emperor, and he was too ill by then to do anything.  For all the good work Albert did in Britain, I think what he wanted even more was to see his daughter Vicky, who, as the programme said, was very like him, and her husband, bring about liberal reforms in Germany.  Well, Albert died ten years before German unification, but it was probably something he hoped would come.  That side of things never got a look-in in this programme.  Fair enough – the programme wasn’t meant to be about Germany.  But no-one questions the fact that Frederick was a great admirer of his father-in-law.  Had he (Frederick) lived longer, Germany would probably have developed very differently, and maybe there’d never have been a First World War, and then there’d never have been a Second World War.  Everything could have been so different.  And a lot of that would have been down to Prince Albert.

It wasn’t to be. But Albert certainly achieved a fair amount, and is well worthy of admiration and respect.  I just wish that the makers of this programme hadn’t found it necessary to knock Queen Victoria so much.  Channel 5 really does seem to have it in for her.  Thank goodness that ITV hasn’t!

Against the Inquisition by Marcos Aguinis

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You don’t necessarily expect a book about the Spanish (well, Peruvian) Inquisition, culminating in the main character being burnt at the stake, to be described as a “stirring song of freedom”; but this book really is quite inspiring. And it’s a true story – the story of Argentinian crypto-Jewish doctor Francisco Maldonado da Silva, born in 1592, who spent 12 years out-arguing the Inquisition before eventually being condemned to death.  It holds a lot of lessons for both the present and the past, and was written by an Argentinian author who lost many family members in the Holocaust and played an important role in promoting democracy in Argentinian culture after the fall of Galtieri.  The original Spanish edition was published in 1991, but it’s only recently been made available in English.

Obviously, Peru was under Spanish (maybe I should say “Castilian” … but maybe not, by this point) rule at this point. The book actually covered quite a wide part of Spanish South America: Francisco is born in Argentina, studies medicine in Chile and is imprisoned in Lima, and part of the story is also set in the Cusco area.  The fact that part of it was set in Cusco is significant, as that’s the area most closely associated with the pre-conquistadorian history of Peru.  The indigenous people of Peru were later deemed to be outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which operated from Peru from 1570 unto 1820, but not in the early years.  The reader sees indigenous people, black slaves and people of mixed race being targeted, and also meets minor characters accused of, amongst other things, witchcraft and homosexuality.

It’s also relevant that Francisco’s family are of Portuguese descent. Portugal was under Spanish Habsburg rule at this time – I’ll refrain from writing an essay on royal genealogy, much as I’d love to.  Therefore, so was Brazil – at a time when it was under attack from the Dutch (and there are plenty of references to the Eighty Years’ War).  “New Christians” of Portuguese descent seem to have come under particular suspicion.

There are various minor characters who fall under suspicion for a number of reasons, but the book’s original Spanish title was “La Gesta del Marrano” and the story is about the persecution of crypto-Jews. It jumps backwards and forwards quite a lot, but, basically, we see Francisco as a young child, see his family torn apart when the Inquisitors take his father away – and help themselves to all the family’s possessions  – and his mother dies shortly afterwards, and see him grow up a devout Catholic, taught by monks.  We then see him train as a doctor, be reunited with his father, and turn to Judaism.  Initially, he does as his father did, lives outwardly as a Catholic, and tells his Catholic wife nothing about his background and beliefs, whilst secretly meeting up with other crypto-Jews to celebrate festivals and rituals.  But, eventually, he has enough: he wants to live openly as what he is, to be what he identifies as. “I am what I am.”

It’s possibly a bit confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with the background of the expulsion of Jews from Castile, Aragon and Portugal but I think the religious practices, and the specific culture of the crypto-Jews – things like keeping the key to a lost family home back in the Iberian Peninsula – are explained fairly well.  As recently as 2014, the Spanish government granted dual nationality to people like the da Silvas, should they choose to seek it: this is something that has remained relevant for over half a millennium.  That’s quite unusual: I’m struggling to think of comparable examples.

One thing I did find unusual about this book, in terms of books about crypto-Jews, was that it was nearly all about men. There is a lot about Francisco’s father, also a doctor.  We meet him again years later, a broken man forced to wear the “sanbenito”, the penitential garment forced on people by the Inquisition.  Francisco’s father explains crypto-Judaism to his elder son, Francisco’s brother, and he’s taken away by the Inquisition as well.  Francisco grows up a devout Catholic, and only turns to Judaism when it’s all explained to him by his father.  Women barely feature.  Francisco’s mother and wife are both from “Old Christian” families, with no Jewish heritage.  His sisters are devout Catholics, and it’s one of them, a nun, who denounces him.  Often, with a book about South American crypto-Jews, you realise what’s going on when you see mothers and daughters, in a supposedly Catholic household, lighting candles on a Friday night.  Not with this one. We do meet some women who are practising crypto-Jews, but it’s very much a male-dominated book – fathers and sons, groups of male friends.  Male priests running the Inquisition, of course.

There’s also a minor point about clashes between the Inquisition and the Jesuits. It is only a minor point, but it’s interesting because, from an English viewpoint, we probably tend to lump them all together.  All part of the Black Legend.  I love Spain, OK.  I was in tears when the Spanish flag went up during the medal ceremony for the 2008 Olympic tennis men’s singles event!   I am not getting Black Legend-ish.  All countries and cultures have shameful things in their past – and sometimes in their present.  But … well, we do say “Spanish Inquisition” rather than just “Inquisition”.  And this is a true story.

It’s not meant to be anti-Spanish, though. And it’s not meant to be anti-Catholic.  The point is made over and over again that Francisco thinks Jesus was a good man, and that the basic ideas of Catholicism are about being good people, leading good lives.  It’s the institutions of the institution that have gone wrong – it’s elements of the Catholic Church, not Catholicism.  That is very relevant at the moment, when hardly a month seems to go by without yet another horrific tale of child abuse by members of the clergy coming to light, and also when Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out such atrocities.

He spends years in prison, debating with the representatives of the Inquisition. They can’t break him. They can’t out-argue him.  They come to admire his incredible knowledge of religious texts, and his way of interpreting them.  At one point, he goes on hunger strike and nearly dies, but then he decides that it’s his duty to fight on, partly for the sake of a number of other alleged crypto-Jews who’ve also been arrested.  Ultimately, he’s burnt at the stake.

There isn’t really official recognition of martyrdom in Judaism in the way that there is in Christianity. (Masada??). If there was, he’d certainly be recognised as one.  And it’s not just that he died for his particular faith.  It’s, and this must really have called out to an author who lived through the Dirty War in Argentina, that he stood up, not only for what he believed in but for the right to believe what he believed in, and to live openly as what he chose to be.  Human rights.  So many people over the years have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political beliefs or their sexuality or just because they were different in some way.  It’s still going on, in so many places.

Most people choose to go with the flow, to bend with the wind … er, that’s enough clichés for one sentence!   Change your religion, profess loyalty to the regime in power, keep your head down and get on with it.  Most of us wouldn’t have the strength to do otherwise.  There are plenty of arguments in favour of going with the flow and bending with the wind: Francisco’s wife is left destitute, their two young children are left to grow up without a father, his patients are left without a skilled and well-respected doctor.  And it takes some strength to live a lie as well – but no-one should have do that, to bear that pain every day.

It feels wrong, in some ways, to talk about finding inspiration in a book about such a horrific topic. The “stirring song of freedom” line’s Mario Vargas Llosa’s description of the book, by the way.  This is a book about evil, masquerading as some sort of attempt to bring about religious “purity” in society.  It’s a book about persecution.  But persecution can bring about inspirational individuals.  Frederick Douglass springs to mind.  Nelson Mandela, maybe.  People like that can change the world.  This book isn’t going to change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think.  And admire.  I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this to be made available in English, but, now that it has been (sorry, my Spanish isn’t up to reading a whole book in it!), it’s well worth reading.  It’s relevant to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emmerdale 1918 – ITV 1, and Journey’s End

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Two very different looks at the Great War, one on TV and one a film adaptation of a play written in 1928.  I am a great believer in the power of soap operas to get messages across 🙂 , and I love the idea of exploring history via soap characters – maybe ITV and BBC could do more of this!   Personal history is increasingly popular, probably because the rise of the internet’s made it so much easier for people to become involved in genealogy, and the idea of this was to show how the war affected a number of individuals from Esholt, the Yorkshire village where Emmerdale used to be filmed, in a series of programmes presented by Emmerdale actors whose characters have similar jobs/positions.  Journey’s End, by contrast, was about fictional characters but took us right into the hell through which soldiers were living during the Spring Offensive of 1918, with almost all the action taking place in an officers’ dugout in one of the trenches.

It (Journey’s End) focussed on the mental hell as much as, maybe more than, the physical hell.  Although the action all took place towards the end of the war, we see at the beginning the attitude associated with the early months, a naïve young lad straight out of school desperate to get stuck into the action.  He was sent to the Front after only a few weeks of training.  Emmerdale 1918 showed us a video of some of the training: Charlotte Bellamy (Laurel Thomas) commented that it looked more like her legs, bums and tums class at the gym than something designed to prepare novice solders for war.

Our lad, Second Lieutentant Raleigh, was a public schoolboy with relatives in high places, and pulled strings to get himself assigned to a company captained by a family friend who’d been a few years above him at school, someone he’d always hero-worshipped and who’d got a bit of a thing going with his sister.  Only they weren’t at school any more, and the boy he knew at school was now aggressive, anxious, drinking too much, and convinced that his relationship with his friend’s sister would break her heart – either he’d die, or he’d go back to her a completely different man from the one she knew and loved.

We didn’t actually see the fighting, although we heard about the men who’d been killed: we saw how things played out in the dugout.  It wasn’t easy to watch: it was very intense and, because it was nearly all set in such a confined space, and over the course of over a few days, quite claustrophobic: it probably got the psychological hell across as well as any dramatisation could do.

The second episode of Emmerdale 1918 was also about a young lad with no military experience, going to the Front.  In this case, he was Joshua Booth, a working-class lad from a small Yorkshire village.  Of the 200 people living in the village, 50 went away to war.  That’s very hard to take in.  25% of your local community gone to war.  They don’t seem to have been in a Pals battalion, which at least was something.  In this case, we got the background: we saw the normality of this young man’s life at home, and we were read extracts from his letters to his sweetheart – who threw him over and married someone else.  You don’t expect that in a war programme, do you?  I know it sounds daft, but wartime romances are meant to end in either tragedy or joy, not in one partner dumping the other.  It was far less tense, far less intense, because it was indirect, and not so focussed on a small space and short period of time; and yet it had the intensity of being about just one person and, significantly, someone who really lived.

Different approaches, different backgrounds, and yet both stories ended the same way: neither young man survived.  Journey’s End didn’t tell us what happened to his comrades.  Emmerdale 1918 did tell us that the other 49 men from Esholt who went away to war all survived, which was incredible really … and yet some of them must have had life-changing injuries, physical or mental, and none of them could ever have been the same again.  Nor could anyone else who lived through that time.  The series is about the fact that it was a total war: we’re also getting land girls, chefs, vets … everyone’s lives turned upside down.

Do schools did get kids to compare The Soldier and Dulce et Decorum est?   It was a standard English Lit GCSE essay topic in my day.  Journey’s End was very Dulce et Decorum est: you just felt broken. Emmerdale 1918 inclined more towards The Soldier – not as sentimental, but concentrating on remembering the bravery, the heroism, the sacrifice.  More John Maxwell Edmonds – for our tomorrow, people like Joshua Booth gave their today.  So many lives lost, so many other lives irrevocably damaged.

It’s hard to believe that we’re now almost as far from the end of the Great War as the end of the Great War was from the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  25 years ago, people were starting to day that the idea of Remembrance would gradually die out, but it hasn’t.  It’s good that it hasn’t, but what a tragedy that, every year without fail, there are more and more war dead to be remembered.  And more and more people who’ve survived but suffered life-changing physical injuries and or horrific trauma.

Journey’s End is hard going, and certainly not enjoyable, but it’s worth watching.  As for Emmerdale 1918, I think this is a brilliant idea.  Soap stuff makes headlines!  We’ve seen that with so many crucial social issues. Can it now branch out into history?  OK, I think this series is a one-off, and I don’t think we’re about to see the cast of Coronation Street marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre or the cast of EastEnders showing us life in medieval London … but it would be great if we did.

 

We are British Jews – BBC 2

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Oh, BBC 2! If you want to show a programme about Middle Eastern politics, don’t go calling it “We are British Jews”.  Are there not enough problems over people conflating Anglo-Jewish life and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without TV documentaries adding to them?  Having said which, have a gold star for, rather than just coming out with a load of clichés about chicken soup and bar mitzvah parties, putting together a group of people with a wide range of attitudes and lifestyles.  There are too many stereotypes and generalisations in this world, and it’s always good to see a TV programme try to dispel some of those.  And have another gold star for filming in Manchester rather than London 🙂 .

There were so many subjects that these two episodes could have covered instead, or at least as well as, the Middle Eastern situation – and didn’t. Had I not read the preview, I’d have been expecting, given the timing of this, less than week before the Jewish New Year, festivals, rituals and food.  Seeing as the previews talked about “challenges”, I was expecting, from the more secular members of the group, some discussion about issues like making partners in mixed-faith relationships feel welcome, and the pros and cons of faith schools.  And, from a historian’s point of view, and seeing as the first episode was filmed here, it might have been nice to’ve had some mention of the important contributions made to Manchester’s history, culture and economy by a very long list of local Jewish people.

OK, this wasn’t a festivals, rituals and food kind of programme. It was about “issues”. And there are a lot of issues facing all religions at the moment, in the UK and elsewhere.  The days when pretty much everyone identified as belonging to one religion or another, and regularly attended religious services, are long gone.  The days when pretty much everyone followed the diktats of the religious authorities are, as the Irish abortion referendum highlighted, thankfully also long gone.  Times have changed, and all religions need to try to adapt to that.

The series on Santiago de Compostela, shown on BBC 2 earlier this year, identified attitudes towards women and attitudes towards LGBT people as two of the main factors putting people off various Christian denominations, and that applies to Judaism too. Hopefully one day we’ll get to a point where all religions recognise everyone as equal, but sadly that seems to be a way off yet.  As with Christianity, there are differences in

attitudes between different denominations. Reform and Liberal Judaism ordain female ministers and allow women to take a full part in services, whereas Orthodox Judaism does not.  Liberal Judaism recognises same sex marriages, whereas Orthodox and Reform Judaism do not.  There’ve also been questions raised about faith schools, especially in the light of some of the stories in the press about unregistered faith schools.  And there’s even been some controversial debate over kosher and halal meat, although more in various Continental countries than in the UK.

But none of that got mentioned. The focus was almost entirely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Which would have been fine, had the title of the programme reflected that.  But it didn’t.

There was a certain sense of Big Brother about it, in that they’d got a group of people with different views, and were obviously hoping that they’d clash.  And there was a fair bit of yelling and shouting, from a group made up of very different people.  They were missing representation from the really ultra-Orthodox end of the spectrum, which is growing very rapidly at the moment, but ultra-Orthodox Jews do tend to keep themselves to themselves, and often don’t even have televisions, so it wouldn’t have been easy to have someone from that grouping willing to take part in something like this.  And the most religious member of the group sadly had to drop out part-way through, after the sudden death of her sister.  But it was a pretty diverse group.  And things did start off quite promisingly, with people explaining all their different takes on Jewish religion and culture; but then it just went back to talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There was a different angle on things the second day, with a meeting about anti-Semitism, including a discussion with Mancunian Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman (who went to the same school as me, incidentally).

I do appreciate that this wasn’t a specifically local programme, but I know where I am when I’m talking about Manchester … so, a bit of talk about our city. Every December, in Albert Square, in front of the Town Hall, there is a menorah alongside the Christmas markets.  It usually ends up by the Porky Pig stall but, to be fair, I think that’s just unfortunate positioning due to where the pork stall goes, rather than someone’s idea of a bad joke!   Look on Facebook next week and you will see “Happy Rosh Hashanah” messages from both United and City.  I could write a very long list of important local politicians, business people, campaigners, philanthropists, authors, TV and film producers (including Mike Leigh, who’s producing the Peterloo film), TV personalities, musicians and music managers who were/are Jewish.  If also you look at people who didn’t/don’t identify as Jewish, but had/have Jewish connections, “Mr Manchester” himself, the late, great, Tony Wilson, had a Jewish grandfather.  So, for that matter, did David Beckham! We’re not talking about ghettoes, mellahs or shtetls here: we’re talking about a diverse city which generally enjoys very good relations between people of all faiths and none.

However, there has in recent times been a rise in all types of hate crime. Some of this is due to increased levels of reporting of hate crime, but there has undoubtedly been a rise.  It feels as if some people will be nasty about anything and everything, especially on social media where they’ve got a degree of anonymity.  Rival sports teams.  Celebrities’ weight.  More seriously, we’re talking religion-based hate crime, racism, hate crime based on nationality, disability-based hate crime, homophobia, transphobia, and even hate crime based on the way people dress.  Where does all this hatred come from?  It seems to be a worldwide phenomenon: racial tension in Chemnitz – one of Manchester’s twin cities, incidentally – has been making the news this week, and hate crime’s on the rise across the Atlantic as well.  In the UK, it’s been the frightening rise in anti-Semitism making the headlines, largely because of the controversies within the Labour Party.  We’re hardly in Dreyfus territory here, i.e. the entire national political debate being taken over by the issue of anti-Semitism, but I cannot think of another time when the issue has been so much at the forefront of national politics here.

It’s extremely unpleasant, and, much as I wish a way could be found of bringing a quick and decisive end to it, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen – although it would help if everyone would moderate their language, stop hurling insults about and stop talking about Nazis. It was very distressing to hear Louise Ellman talk about the abuse she’s received on-line, and to see pictures of Holocaust-related abusive pictures sent to her.  One woman spoke about having an egg thrown at her.  Another spoke about some very vile verbal abuse she’d received.  They also spoke to the owners of a local kosher restaurant which has been attacked by arsonists – and it’s not the only one.  And the trailer for this series received some very nasty comments on You Tube.

Part of it’s this international conspiracy theory idea. That’s been around for a long time.  It’s been said about Catholics as well, but, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mostly about Jews – most famously, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  You wouldn’t believe that it’d all still be going on in the 21st century, but we’ve now got people claiming that there’s some sort of Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the Labour Party leadership, and that there’s also some sort of international conspiracy involving Donald Trump.  A councillor from Salford came out with some of these comments the other day.  That’s not some anonymous Twitter troll: it’s a person holding public office.  And, as everyone’s well aware, there have been several similar incidents.

The one thing everyone in the group agreed on was that, whilst there has been a rise in hate crime generally, the rise in anti-Semitism is largely about the situation in the Middle East. I suppose that was the justification for making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the focus of the programme.   I can see that, but I just don’t think it was helpful.

On the one hand, concerns over the situation in the West Bank, the appalling situation in the Gaza Strip, and, more recently, the new Israeli constitution, and the whole issues of lack of self-determination for Palestinians, and the number of Palestinians living as refugees in other countries, many in refugee camps, have spilled over into general anti-Jewish sentiment. On the other hand, criticism of those situations has been interpreted as anti-Jewish sentiment.  So the conflation of issues is coming from both sides, and several members of the group did point that out.

It’s hard to get a handle on all this from a historian’s viewpoint. Just to go back to the Dreyfus Affair, it was that which really kicked off modern Zionism.  I think there’s a common perception that it was the pogroms in the Russian Empire, but it wasn’t.  And, just because I always like to get some local history in J, Manchester, as I’ve said before, has very significant historical ties with Zionism and Israel. The Balfour Declaration was all about Manchester.  The first president of Israel spent around thirty years living in Manchester.   The first president of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation came from Manchester.  Etc etc etc. https://setinthepast.wordpress.com/2017/11/02/the-balfour-declaration-britains-promise-to-the-holy-land-bbc-2/

But this overlap/overspill of issues is difficult to make sense of, because it doesn’t seem to happen over anything else. As one of the group pointed out, no-one’s going to attack British Muslims because of what IS are doing in the Middle East.   No-one’s going to accuse someone who criticises the Polish government of being anti-Catholic, or even anti-Polish.  There are no comparisons.  And there isn’t a historical take on it: the State of Israel has only existed since 1948, and, in the early days, was viewed far more favourably in the West than it is under its present right-wing nationalist government.  The politics of the Middle East are as may be, and a peaceful solution unfortunately seems to be a very long way away; but there is this huge problem with Israeli issues and Jewish issues getting tangled up together, and that’s why I really don’t think it was ideal for BBC 2 to make a programme called “We are British Jews” and then spend most of it talking about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The group then went to visit the University of Manchester, and it was sad, in our city, to hear people saying that they felt uncomfortable there, and on many other university campuses in the country, and again this was all over the Israeli-Palestinian situation. A point, which I’ve made on a historians’ forum before and which no-one seems to have the answer to, was made about it being the “touchstone” issue of the day, and a “thing”.  Why does something become a “thing”?  Obviously it is an issue, but why does it attract so much more attention than the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma/Myanmar, the barbaric treatment of the Yazidis by IS, the abduction of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the use of child soldiers in the DR Congo, etc etc?  Back in the day, it used to be all about apartheid in South Africa.  Again, that was a huge issue, but why did we focus so much more on that than on any of the other things going on in the ’70s and ’80s?   The Chinese occupation of Tibet used to be a “thing” as well, and now no-one ever even mentions it.  Why does something become the “in” topic of the day?  Is there any logic to it?

We actually did get some focus back on Jewish, rather than Israeli, issues, with a celebration of the festival of Purim. This bit was filmed fairly close to chez moi.  The hotel where they stayed isn’t far away, but is in an area I tend to go through rather than to, whereas this bit was somewhere I go past pretty much every day.  So that was all very local.  But then it was off to Israel, for the second episode.  The first part showed a kibbutz, and explained the history of Zionist settlement, and something about the history of the Israeli state, right up to the immediate present with the introduction of the controversial new constitution.  But then it was right back to the conflict.

Jerusalem, with its unique historical and religious significance, should be one of the most visited cities in the world. It’s tragic that, because of the political situation, it isn’t.  Many other places within Israel and the Occupied Territories should also be high up on the tourist agenda, for historical and religious/cultural reasons or even just as beach resorts. It’s sad that they can’t be.  Fascinating part of the world.  But don’t look for the history of British Jews there, because you won’t find it.  They’d’ve found it in Manchester, or London, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow or many other parts of the UK, but BBC 2 weren’t interested in that.  They didn’t even seem very interested in the history and culture of the area: when the group visited Akko, no-one even mentioned that it was the historic Crusader capital of Acre.

Incidentally, I hate to sound like a grumpy old woman, but it’s no wonder that millennials are known as “the snowflake generation”! Going on about whether or not Israel should have an army.  All countries have armies – that’s life.  And fussing about whether or not a plate of hummus was “cultural appropriation”.  Still, at least the hummus debate showed that there is actually more to both Israeli culture and Palestinian culture than the conflict, because nothing else did.  No mention of sport, music, dancing … or even language, which is currently a hot topic after the new constitution removed the status of Arabic as an official language of Israel.   Not only was it a long way from Anglo-Jewish life, which was what the title of the programme said that it was going to be about, but it didn’t really represent either the Israeli people or the Palestinian people that well.

The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians just want to live in peace and go about their business, just as people everywhere do; but there’s been a certain amount of demonisation of both cultures, in different areas of the press, because of the conflict. It might have been nice had BBC 2 talked about … I was going to say the Eurovision Song Contest, but maybe not!   Football, then.  Football talk’s always good!  Actually, forget that, because there’s currently a row going on over Argentina pulling out of a friendly against Israel.   Oh dear.  But that’s exactly what I mean.  Why does everything have to be about the conflict?  Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have so much more to offer the world.  But their leaders don’t help.  The match was only cancelled after the Israeli government encouraged their FA to move it from Haifa to Jerusalem.  The match was a sell-out and a lot of people would have been eagerly looking forward to seeing Messi & co, and now they won’t get the chance.  Own goal.  But then none of that excuses the threats made to Messi by Palestinian groups: that was awful.  Oh, what a mess.  Sorry, I’ve got way off the point now!

That’s not to say that it wasn’t interesting. The makers of the programme clearly wanted debate, and indeed argument, and they got that all right.  The group met Israelis, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  It’s a shame that other groups weren’t included too – members of the Israeli Druze community have been speaking out about their distress over the new constitution, and there’s a row going on at the moment over plans to destroy a Bedouin village – but I suppose they could only fit so much into an hour.

BBC 2 had tried very hard to present a balanced view of the situation. The group spent most of their time in the West Bank, and met a number of Israelis and Palestinians, some of whom held quite militant views and some of whom held more conciliatory views.  The one thing that came across at all times was what a human tragedy this is.  People (Israelis and Palestinians) are living in fear of being attacked.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having to go through checkpoints – there’s that great big wall there, in particular – to get from home to work and back again.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having their businesses boarded up or their farmland confiscated.  The extremely controversial term “apartheid” was used, when talking about different communities being subject to different courts.  It was unfortunate that, at that point, several members of the group walked out – although others did point out the necessity of listening to all viewpoints.

The visit to Jerusalem did bring up one of the more general issues, the debate over whether or not women should be able to wear skull caps and prayer shawls when praying at the Western Wall – one member of the group, a female Progressive Jew, did so, and was criticised by some other people there. Can we all get over criticising other people’s choice of clothing, please?!  But that was more the sort of thing I’d originally been expecting.  But then the visit to Jerusalem finished on a very sad note, with the group speaking to an Israeli man whose 14-year-old daughter had been killed by Palestinians, and an Israeli man whose 10-year-old daughter had been killed by Israelis.

This was the last bit, apart from a visit to Masada. Both men spoke of their hopes for peace.  Neither called for revenge.  Just peace.  Everyone was clearly very impressed and moved by their courage.  If only people like them come could and speak at political party conferences, or university demonstrations, instead of having all these ridiculous slanging matches.  If only their own political leaders would listen to them.  If only someone would do something to end this horrendous cycle of violence.  They both said that they believed that peace would come.  Well, let’s hope so.

All in all, a very well-meaning attempt at showing a range of different views on a subject about which feelings tend to run very high – and which, I’ve said, really is a human tragedy. But I don’t think the choice of title was particularly helpful or appropriate.  A lot of what is going on at the moment is because people cannot or will not distinguish between “Jewish” and … well, and what?  People say “between anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist” (leaving aside the fact that “anti-Semitic” isn’t an accurate term and “anti-Jewish” is better), but that isn’t right. Saying or doing anything anti-Semitic is clearly wrong at every possibly level, and should not be permitted in any political party or anywhere else.  What about “anti-Zionist”?  That presumably means questioning the right of the Israeli state to exist – and is inappropriate, given that its existence is recognised by, and indeed was voted on by, the United Nations.  Or “anti-Israeli” – that presumably means taking against over 5 million people, and isn’t acceptable either.  “Critical of the policies of the present Israeli government in relation to the Palestinians” is horribly long-winded, but that’s the one that should be OK.  Criticise any government!

But all these things are getting confused.  And calling a programme “We are British Jews” and then spending 90% of the time talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just kind of plays right along with that confusion.  All the same, there was a lot of very interesting stuff in it, and it’s good to see such a controversial subject being tackled rather than shied away from.

 

 

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

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According to William Dalrymple, all the problems of the world are due to Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists. And no, he wasn’t talking about today – he was talking about the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.  Let’s say that this isn’t the most balanced and unbiased view of events that I’ve ever read!  He makes some good points, though, and a lot of the writing is quite gripping – not always easy to achieve when writing about military events.  And he’s used some previously unpublished information which he came across whilst doing his research.

Dalrymple is also the author of White Mughals, about a relationship (a true story) between a British man and an Indian noblewoman, and he clearly feels very strongly about the changes in British attitudes towards Indian people as the 19th century went on, and links that closely to changes in religious culture.  This was something I also mentioned when I was waffling about the Who Do You Think You Are? Episode about Olivia Colman’s mixed race ancestor – welcomed into the family and British society, in the early 19th century, in a way which she sadly wouldn’t have been a few decades later.   There was definitely a change in attitudes, and it certainly wasn’t for the better.

The book’s actually supposed to be about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor – as the title suggests. Also an Urdu poet and a Sufi mystic.  You associate the Mughal Empire with the 16th and 17th centuries, and tend almost to forget that there was still a Mughal Emperor, even if his rule was confined just to parts of Delhi, until the Mutiny.  Popular amongst both Hindus and Muslims, he was, at the age of 81, proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan by the mutineers … and he dithered whilst 52 Westerners were murdered at his palace, and then pretty much took the blame.  A British major then executed two of his sons and one of his grandsons.  Many other male members of his family were also executed by the British – it reads a bit like the Bolsheviks wiping out the Romanovs – and, according to Dalrymple, many of the women ended up working as prostitutes.  Zafar was exiled to Burma.  And Delhi was wrecked.

It was not the British Empire’s finest hour – although an amnesty was proclaimed for all mutineers not actually involved in murder.  It should also be noted that the press didn’t help, by exaggerating what had gone on, particularly with false claims about mutineers sexually assaulting British women.  The press in the second half of the 19th century seem to have been very good at whipping up hysteria: they did the same in the 1870s, during the Russo-Turkish War.

And, as we all know, the rule of the East India Company was then replaced by the British Raj – although it should be pointed out that large areas of India remained under the control of local rulers, and also that a royal proclamation was issued, promising Indians under British rule the rights of British subjects.

The Mutiny’s covered in two of my all-time favourite books, God is an Englishman (retrospectively) by R F Delderfield and A Dark and Distant Shore by Reay Tannahill.   Both make it clear that there was horrific violence on both sides – and that’s where I think Dalrymple could do with seeing both sides a little more clearly.  He does follow the experiences of a number of British people, men and women, in Delhi during the Mutiny, and he does make it clear that some of them were murdered, but he doesn’t seem to express the same horror about that as he does about the atrocities committed by the British forces.  Two wrongs, especially two such horrific wrongs, do not in any way make a right; but it is important to recognise that there was wrong on both sides.  His view doesn’t seem particularly balanced, and a lot of that seems due to his conviction that relations between the British and the Indians went wrong because of Evangelical Christianity.

He does also deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, so maybe he has it in for religious extremism in general. It’s hard to argue with anyone on that score!   But his argument seems to be everything that was going wrong revolved around cultural changes in British attitudes towards India, associated with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, whereas there were all sorts of different reasons for the Mutiny.  And, yes, I know that not everyone uses the term “Mutiny”, but it’s the one I’m used to.

Going back to God is an Englishman and A Dark and Distant Shore, neither of them – and obviously they’re novels, not academic books – focus on Delhi.  Books by British authors do usually focus on Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow and the sufferings of British civilians there, but this one does very much focus on Delhi, and the Indian viewpoint.  I’m saying “Indian”, but obviously we’re talking about a subcontinent of three major religions and many different ethnic groups, and that needs to be borne in mind.

The cause I first remember reading about was the use of beef and pork fat on cartridges used to grease guns. Soldiers had to bite the cartridges open.  What a stupid, insensitive thing to do – upsetting both Hindus and Muslims, and it could so easily have been avoided by using goat or mutton fat.  But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  There was so much else going on.  Interference in religion and culture, yes.  Fears that attempts would be made to make mass conversions to Christianity, yes.  Economic policy – free trade is a wonderful thing, but not when it interferes with local traditional ways of doing things.  The Doctrine of Lapse, by which the British authorities helped themselves to princely states with no direct heir, refusing to recognise the traditional practice of adopting an heir in such circumstances.  And it wasn’t called the Mutiny for nothing – there was widespread discontent in the Army, over pay, lack of opportunities for promotion, and, as British holdings in India expanded, men being sent further and further afield.

So it was hardly all about religious/cultural ideas.  And it’s pushing it to suggest, as Dalrymple does, that Evangelical Christians were making all the decisions about British policy in India, and I also think it’s pushing it to say that Evangelical Christians were to blame for all the negative aspects of imperialism … even if it does make a change from the often-made suggestion that British attitudes towards Indians changed for the worse when more British women began going to India, which is very objectionable!  A lot of the trouble in China was caused by Catholic missionaries, rather than Evangelicals, incidentally.  And the people who did look at expansion and imperialism as some sort of religious thing were part of a wider culture of Western-centrism, which was about race and industrialisation as much as it was about religion.  It’s the whole “White Man’s Burden” thing.  And the American term “Manifest Destiny” goes right back to just before the Mexican War.  It’s horrible, and it’s frightening, but it went way beyond religious activism.

These people did actually mean well, I suppose. And, as much as it’s easy to criticise their ideas of cultural superiority, you can see why they thought that, for example, trying to end the practice of widows committing suicide was a good thing.   This still goes on today.  Should people be criticised for trying to end Female Genital Mutilation, which is a traditional practice in some areas? And David Cameron was accused of cultural imperialism when he quite rightly criticised the very poor record of some Commonwealth countries on LGBT rights – ironically, a subject on which Evangelical Christians would probably oppose change in the countries concerned.   All cultures can learn from other cultures. Look how many English words have come from Urdu and Hindi. We use some of them every day. Shampoo. Pyjamas. But that has to come in the right way, and that wasn’t what was happening in 19th century India.

I can’t abide preachy people who think they have the right to tell other people what to do, and who think that they’re morally and culturally superior to others. Thinking about missionaries in India always makes me think about St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, one of the most annoying characters in classic literature – and that says a lot!  And some of the stuff coming out of the US at the moment is genuinely frightening.  But I do think Dalrymple’s a bit hard on them.  It’s worth remembering that Evangelicals played an important role in Abolitionism … although don’t get me started on the subject of William Wilberforce opposing holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  And the negative side of colonialism and imperialism was scarcely all their fault.  There were a lot of other factors at play.  Power politics.  The Mutiny broke out the year after the end of the Crimean War: the two things weren’t linked, but there was always “the Great Game” to be thought about.  Money – let’s never forget money!    Well, trade.  If only everyone had stuck to thinking about trade!

We do all need to try harder to see different sides of everything.  That’s becoming more and more of a rarity: increasingly, people will shout down anyone whose views differ from theirs, and hurl insults at them.  I recently read an obituary of Senator John McCain which referred to the respect that he and Barack Obama showed for each other.  Fewer and fewer politicians show that respect towards opponents now, and it’s the same with the press, and, in many cases, with people in general.

Back to the Mutiny. Was it Niall Ferguson who said that Britain somehow ended up with “the wrong empire”?  We were supposed to be after trade, not colonies and certainly not all this “white man’s burden” stuff.  There’d been criticism in Britain for years of Spanish behaviour in Latin America, all the “Black Legend” stuff.  Was the Mutiny the point at which it changed?

There’s a lot to think about, in this book, beyond the actual events of 1857-58. Poor old Zafar himself.  The final end of the Mughal period – that great Empire, the Empire of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and, for so many years, religious harmony.  What happens to emperors after their empires have gone?  Zafar only lived a few years afterwards, and the senior Romanovs were wiped out, but spare a thought for the various Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns and others still dotted around the world.  And, finally, back to the question of Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists – and add the religious right-wing elements of Judaism, Hinduism and other religions into that as well.   One of the few good things that Oliver Cromwell did for this country was to show people that religious extremism is best kept out of politics.  It usually is, here.  It’s a great shame that that isn’t the case everywhere.

Nobody can agree on the Indian Mutiny.  Mutiny?  War of independence?  Either way, you can’t argue that it wasn’t a big deal.  However, that’s usually seen in terms of the change from the rule of the East India Company to the rule of the British Crown – and, yes, that was the main effect, but the fact that it did finally end the Mughal Empire, even if the “Mughal Empire” was by then only one part of one city, deserves recognition too, and that’s what this book was about.  Even if it did go on rather too much about religious attitudes.