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Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015 0 Comments

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Symphony of Sorrow and solidarity for Paris

Saturday, 14 November, 2015 0 Comments

When he was composing his Third Symphony (the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), Henryk Górecki sought inspiration in a variety of texts. Foremost was an inscription scrawled on a cell wall of a Gestapo prison in Zakopane at the foot of the Tatra mountains. The words were those of 18-year-old Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna: O Mamo nie płacz nie — Niebios Przeczysta Królowo Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie (“Oh Mamma do not cry — Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always”). He also read Psalm 93/94 in the 16th-century translation by Jakub Wujek: “They humiliated Your people, O Lord, and afflicted Your heritage, they killed the widow and the passer-by, murdered the orphans.”

Henryk Górecki survived two of the most vile ideologies in history: Communism and Nazism. We are now challenged by Islamism, a reincarnation of their combined evil. The followers of the new wickedness, like their 20th-century predecessors, do not shy from murdering the orphans, killing the widow and the passer-by, afflicting heritage and humiliating people. The words of Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna and the music of Henryk Górecki offer comfort at this time of suffering and sorrow and solidarity.

Barthes and the irreplaceable being

Thursday, 12 November, 2015 0 Comments

Had he lived, French philosopher, critic, writer and semiotician Roland Barthes would be 100 today. In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, he ponders a picture of his late mother and writes: “For what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable.”

Mammy and Prince and Cat

Rejection to Brexit: from getting in to getting out

Thursday, 12 November, 2015 0 Comments

On Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron sent a letter to the European Council President Donald Tusk about the the reforms London wants in its relationship with the EU. If these are not forthcoming, Brexit might go from neologism to reality.

Back in 1967, however, Britain wanted to join the European club but couldn’t get past the velvet rope, which was being held by the French. History: The European Economic Community (EEC) was created by the Treaty of Rome of 1957. President Charles de Gaulle of France vetoed British membership on the grounds that the UK was a Trojan horse for US influence. Following de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, things changed and the UK joined the body on 1 January 1973. Upon the formation of the European Union (EU) in 1993, the EEC was absorbed into the EU framework and ceased to exist.


Helmut Schmidt

Wednesday, 11 November, 2015 1 Comment

The man who died yesterday aged 96, was West Germany’s fifth chancellor, and its most talented and competent post-war leader. Helmut Schmidt faced down the leftist terror of the Baader-Meinhof gang and he stood up to Russian imperial bullying at a time when most Germans favoured appeasment. “Intolerant of fools, he had the common German didactic and omniscient tendencies in full measure, along with frankness,” writes Dan van der Vat in the Guardian. In its obituary, the Telegraph highlights his Anglophilia: “To a modern German chancellor, he once remarked, the two most important newspapers were The New York Times and The Financial Times.” British novelist, Robert Harris, sums up the man’s arrogance and wit in this tweet:

Helmut Schmidt

Breakfast with Bond

Tuesday, 10 November, 2015 0 Comments

When he’s not gallivanting around the world saving civilization from the likes of SMERSH and SPECTRE, James Bond likes to relax at home. The day begins with the same routine: breakfast, and every breakfast is the same: a boiled egg, two slices of whole wheat toast with marmalade jam and coffee. Ian Fleming describes this in great detail in From Russia With Love. The brown egg is boiled for three-and-a-third minutes before being placed in Bond’s favourite eggcup:

“It was a very fresh, speckled brown egg from French Marans hens owned by some friend of May in the country. (Bond disliked white eggs and, faddish as he was in many small things, it amused him to maintain that there was such a thing as the perfect boiled egg.)”

Marans hens, for those who don’t know poultry, originated in the département of Charente-Maritime, in the Poitou-Charentes region of western France. In Fleming’s short story, 007 in New York, Bond’s passion for Maran eggs is such that he travels the length and breadth of the city in an attempt to track some down only to be told by a grocery store clerk, “We don’t stock ’em, mister. People think they’re dirty.”

Bond had better luck with eggs in the Big Apple in Live and Let Die. On the run from the evil Mr. Big, 007 “hides” at the St. Regis Hotel, where he orders a substantial breakfast: pineapple juice, cornflakes, eggs and bacon, toast with marmalade and a double espresso. Although he is in mortal danger, Bond does not want to face death over sunny-side up eggs. He insists instead on œufs cocotte à la Provençale.

Speaking of eggs and New York City, Paul Simon says he was eating in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Manhattan and there was a chicken and egg dish on the menu called “Mother and Child Reunion.” Simon: “And I said, I gotta use that one.”

The best boiled egg

“Have you ever seen a man, woman, or child who wasn’t eating an egg or just going to eat an egg or just coming away from eating an egg? I tell you, the good old egg is the foundation of daily life.” — P.G. Wodehouse, Love Among the Chickens

Kardashian Gatsby Kanye Warhol

Monday, 9 November, 2015 0 Comments

People: “Daughters Kendall Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian were the bee’s knees in their throwback costumes, with the Victoria’s Secret catwalker channeling Daisy Buchanan and the single mother of three looking dapper as Jay Gatsby.”

For those who do not read People Magazine, Kristen Mary “Kris” Jenner, who has just celebrated her 60th birthday, is an American television personality who is famous for starring in the reality television series Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Among the 250 guests at her Gatsby-themed party were John Legend, Boy George, Melanie Griffith and Kanye West. Contemporary Gatsby fans will be aware, no doubt, that No Church in the Wild, a song by Kanye West, featured in the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby by Australian director Baz Luhrmann.

Which brings us back to the Kardashians. Who are they? “Andy Warhol would have been transfixed by them,” wrote Lauren La Vine. “They’ve managed to not only run down the clock on his assertion that, ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,’ — but also hurl that clock out the window and smash it to pieces.” Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Kendall Jenner decided to “channel” Daisy Buchanan at her mother’s party. What was it that F. Scott Fitzgerald said of the Buchanans?

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” The Great Gatsby

The new Gatsbys


Sunday, 8 November, 2015 0 Comments

Egypt’s five million Copts, the last remaining major Christian sect in the Middle East, are fearful for their future in a hostile home. Yemen is now the biggest source of refugees in Africa, and at some 25 million it is as populous as Afghanistan. Talking of Afghanistan, what if the Taliban continue to expand their territorial writ, causing even more people to flee? And what if Islamic State terrorists extend their barbaric rule across Iraq and Syria? A Gallup Poll, based on data compiled from more than 450,000 interviews in 151 countries from 2009 to 2011, found that in Nigeria, which has double the population of Germany, 40 percent of the people would leave if they could. And the lesson of 2015 — for them and millions more — is that they can.

When they cross the Mediterranean or the Rio Grande, many migrants find life in the “West” comes with a price tag, and Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate, looks at this side of the displaced experience in Foreign. As a professional user of language herself, Duffy asks us to consider the lot of migrants who are marginalized because of their lack of linguistic proficiency. The stress of thinking in one language and having to translate into another renders people inarticulate. The “local dialect” in the foreigner’s head is associated with the memory of a mother singing, while “writing home” is a desperate attempt to keep in touch with a lost world. Imagine that.


Imagine living in a strange, dark city for twenty years.
There are some dismal dwellings on the east side
and one of them is yours. On the landing, you hear
your foreign accent echo down the stairs. You think
in a language of your own and talk in theirs.

Then you are writing home. The voice in your head
recites the letter in a local dialect; behind that
is the sound of your mother singing to you,
all that time ago, and now you do not know
why your eyes are watering and what’s the word for this.

You use the public transport. Work. Sleep. Imagine one night
you saw a name for yourself sprayed in red
against a brick wall. A hate name. Red like blood.
It is snowing on the streets, under the neon lights,
as if this place were coming to bits before your eyes.

And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins
in your palm will not translate. Inarticulate,
because this is not home, you point at fruit. Imagine
that one of you says Me not know what these people mean.
It like they only go to bed and dream
. Imagine that.

Carol Ann Duffy

The gospel of Phil Cook

Saturday, 7 November, 2015 0 Comments

“To have is not necessarily to hold, and when possession is transient, belonging is all you have,” wrote Laura Snapes about the music of Phil Cook, whose second solo album, “Southland Mission,” was released on 11 September.

“When your youthful days are gone and old age is stealing on,
And your body bends beneath the weight of care;
He will never leave you then. He’ll go with you to the end —
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

When a Limerick is not a Limerick

Friday, 6 November, 2015 0 Comments

After Lord Montagu of Beaulieu died in August, a seat in the House of Lords became vacant. This has now resulted a hereditary peer by-election — the system by which vacancies left by the death of a sitting hereditary peer are filled. The Earl of Limerick, Edmund Christopher Pery, has put himself forward for the job and the press is reporting that he’s hoping to convince sitting peers to support his bid “by presenting them with a personal statement in the form of a limerick poem.”

As most people know, however, a Limerick (limerick) is a form of poetry in five-line, mostly anapestic tetrameter with a strict rhyme scheme (AABBA). Limericks are sometimes obscene but the intent is always humourous. The verse that the Earl of Limerick has produced is not lewd, but it is not a limerick and with 12 lines it’s not a sonnet, either. Still, he does get points for “embenched”.

The Upper House knows none so queer
A creature as the Seatless Peer
Flamingo-like he stands all day
With no support to hold his sway
And waits with covert eagerness
For ninety-two to be one less
Then on to hustings he must pace
Once more to plead his special case
Noble Lordships, spare a thought
For one so vertically distraught
And from your seats so well entrenched
Please vote that mine may be embenched

Oxford English Dictionary: embenched em ‘benched, ppl. a.Obs.rare—1
[f. en- + bench n. + -ed.]
Formed into ‘benches’; cf. bench n. 6, 7, and v. 2.
1599 Nashe Lent. Stuffe 9 Cerdicus… was the first..that on those embenched shelues stampt his footing.

Was there ever a cat so clever?

Thursday, 5 November, 2015 0 Comments

The cat

“He is quiet and small, he is black
From his ears to the tip of his tail;
He can creep through the tiniest crack
He can walk on the narrowest rail.
He can pick any card from a pack,
He is equally cunning with dice;
He is always deceiving you into believing
That he’s only hunting for mice.
He can play any trick with a cork
Or a spoon and a bit of fish-paste;
If you look for a knife or a fork
And you think it is merely misplaced —
You have seen it one moment, and then it is gawn!
But you’ll find it next week lying out on the lawn.
And we all say: OH!
Well I never!
Was there ever
A Cat so clever.”

T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats