Nollaig na mBan

I’d not heard of this. It’s Gaelic for ‘women’s Christmas’, traditionally falling on the 6th January – the feast of the Epiphany – when, after working hard for others through the rest of the Christmas season, women had some time for themselves:

“In rural and small-town Catholic Ireland, especially, women would gather in each other’s homes or local pubs for a few stolen hours of gaiety while the men looked after the brood.

Speaking to the Times, Irish scholar Alan Titley remarked that the tradition was most common in the west of Ireland in a litany of different ways. “Most women in west Kerry would have raised five or six turkeys for sale at the Christmas market,” he said. “They kept the money – like egg money – and if there was anything left over after Christmas they spent it on themselves.”

Nice article on the tradition here.

Nollaig na mBan

The Colors of Our Dreams

Fascinating little essay about the changing ways that colour in general and blue in particular – has been associated with culture, class and feeling through the ages:

Blue was once little-known in the Western palette. Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century. It has evolved from its original association with warmth, heat, barbarism, and the creatures of the underworld, to its current association with calm, peace, and reverie. Like the unruly green, the Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments. These northern barbarians also painted themselves blue before war and religious rituals. The ancient Germans, according to Ovid, even dyed their whitening hair blue.

The Romans, in contrast, preferred the color red—the Latin word, “coloratus” was synonymous with that for red, ruber. The Romans and Greeks did import lapis lazuli, the exquisite blue rock, from exotic locals such as China, Iran, and Afghanistan. But neither used the barbaric blue for important figures or images, saving it for the backgrounds for white and red figures. Even the Greek words for blue, like the names of colors in the Bible, largely were meant to evoke certain states or feelings as opposed to exact visual colors. Blue, like green, was the color of death and barbarism. The nobler colors—white, red, and black—were preferred.

Now read on www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/the-colors-of-our-dreams/

The Colors of Our Dreams

Timesong: searching for Doggerland

Just treated myself to a copy of Julia Blackburn’s latest book, Timesong, Searching for Doggerland.

In the introduction she says,

I wonder if it makes sense to imagine infinity going backwards in time rather than forwards. When you look at it that way round, you no longer have the vague dread of what the future holds, instead there is the intimation of the enormity of everything that has gone before: a solemn procession of life in all its myriad forms moving steadily towards this present moment. You can almost hear the songs they are singing.

There is something else. My husband died a few years ago. He has vanished and yet he remains close, beneath the surface as it were, so perhaps I am also trying to catch a glimpse of him within the great jumble of everything else that has been lost from our sight.’

As an epigraph she quotes the last few lines of a poem by Charles Causley, called Eden Rock. I thought it was worth sharing the whole:

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

I had not thought that it would be like this.
Charles Causley

Timesong: searching for Doggerland

Lost Europeans

This is a sort of footnote to my blogpost about the Dreyfus Affair and anti-semitism.

One of Rose’s points was that Dreyfus showed French Jews (and reminded Jews everywhere) that even the most assimilated, the most loyal, diligent and dedicated servant of the state could become in an instant the other, the outsider, the Jew.

For Jews themselves it gave added impetus to the drive for a Jewish state – where else could a Jew truly be safe? Many liberal minded Europeans – guilty by association – felt the need too, in part at least as a way of saving European Jews from ourselves.

Now that Israel exists, it all feels a more complicated. In my lifetime Israel has morphed in liberal (my) consciousness from embattled underdog (Democratic, western, like us) into an oppressor, justifying every terrible action by that first promise – that Israel should be the place Jews must be able to be safe.

It clouds our understanding of what anti-semitism is and how we understand it. I feel it myself.

When, recently, Margaret Hodge said that the rise of anti-semitism within the Labour Party put her in mind of her father’s advice, telling her that, “you’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door, Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry.” She added, “when I heard about the disciplinary action, my emotional response resonated with that feeling of fear”.

In my own mind, my response was equivocal. I heard a wealthy privileged woman, close to the heart of power in this country, and part of me was suspicious that this was a sort of over-statement for political effect. Like many Labour politicians, Hodge has never made any secret of her distaste for Corbyn or the Labour values he stands for.

The feeling was also coloured by a concern that anti-semitism and a wish to challenge Israel’s actions in the Middle East were being conflated, making criticism of Israel that bit more difficult – and I wanted to resist the link (most clearly seen in the definition of anti-semitism that Labour was being pressed to adopt) being strengthened.

I still feel that humanity demands that we challenge Israel over its treatment of Palestinians until a proper settlement can be found, but I read a book recently that led me back to Margaret Hodge’s feeling of unease with a lot more sympathy and understanding.

Dennis Litvinov’s first novel was called, The Lost Europeans and describes the experience of a young Jewish man who goes back to Berlin after the war to set in motion a claim for restitution of his family’s property.

He himself was a child in the 30s. His family were wealthy bankers, secular and assimilated until the rise of the Nazis threatened them. Then, like Dreyfus, they became suspect, ‘other’. They suffered tragic loss – his sister experimented on and killed, his mother’s suicide – before his father escaped the country bringing him to England.

In every outward sense he goes to Berlin a middle class, public school educated Englishmen – but he is a Jew and Berlin helps him understand what this will always mean. He reflects:

‘After all, was he so English? How would they be remembered in London, he and his kind? As temporary residents among the many thousands who occupied furnished rooms in the big, hospitable metropolis? As one species among a host of refugees from every land of intolerance, a class apart, with a voice, a manner, a shrillness that belonged nowhere in the strictly stratified society of England? As something of a burden on the conscience of liberal socialists; too-many-of-the-chosen-people-in-the-professions to the strident housewives of the Conservative Association; white Negroes to the league of Empire Loyalists? The kind and sentimental might think of Daniel Deronda. The others, the enemy, of Shylock, or Eliot’s Jew squatting on the windowsill of the decayed civilisation he owns, or of Colleoni in Brighton Rock – The Tempter who looked like a man who owned the whole visible world, cash registers, police, prostitutes, Parliament, and law, and whose face was the face of any middle-aged Jew, the mythological Wanderer trapped, as they saw it, in the web of his own evil. Judas.

That’s how it was written into the civilisation of Europe. It was the classic Jewish dilemma. Once they offered you conversion, the forgiving embrace of an alien church; then the chimerical brotherhood of man. But all roads led to Auschwitz, to the Warsaw ghetto.

The truth, it said, is that you have been condemned to homelessness. Each generation passes onto the next its virus of insecurity. You learn the technique of survival, fearing ostentation as if it were a vice, censoring the act or gesture that may be pilloried as strangeness, observing yourself constantly through the eyes of an enemy. In a fortunate time a hundred years may pass and you will remain unmolested. You become incautious and show a coloured feather, a hand with six fingers, and another King arises to say: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come let us deal wisely with him; lest they multiply…and join also unto our enemies.’ You who survive go out to the wilderness for 40 years, space of a generation, until a new, hard people advance upon another land of promise.’

The book was published in the late 50s and it’s been a long time since I have read such a clear expression of the experience of European Jews. Of the insecurity that is bred in the bone – the deep knowledge that achievement and wealth and even access to power will not protect (and may even harm) you, that neither assimilation or difference matters, that, sure as the sun rises and sets every day, when the wheel turns persecution will come again.

In this context Margaret Hodge was only saying what every European Jew must know in their bones.

For liberals now, even though we challenge Israel – and we must – we must not forget that this is also true, or that we, have been, are still, responsible for that turning of the wheel.

Lost Europeans

Clog dancing

There was a fascinating exhibition at Compton Verney this summer all about ingenious automata and different mechanical models. There’s a good review – with links – here.

Lots of fun but, underneath, there was also a strand which explored our relationship with the machines we make. C and I were riveted by a video of clog dancing – steps learned from an elderly mill worker – demonstrating the dances that developed in counterpoint to the machines the women worked amongst. Here’s the video now. There are some introductory scenes (which are worth watching) but if its the dancing you’ve come for start at two minutes in.

Clog dancing

Mad dogs or Englishmen

One thing leads to another and this morning I found myself listening to one of the 1955 Reith Lectures from the BBC. They were given by Sir (then Doctor) Nicolas Pevsner on the subject of Englishness in Art. It’s not nearly as jingoistic as it sounds. Pevsner tells a nuanced tale but, early in the first lecture, he lists what might at that time have been a list of ‘English’ characteristics. Englishness, in the popular mind is about:

“Personal liberty, freedom of expression, and wisdom in compromise, the two-party system not shaken by communism or fascism, the democratic system of negotiating in parliament as well as on boards and committees, the distrust of the sweeping statement (such as mine are) and of the demagogue.”

I paused and thought about the state of political debate in the country at the moment . I thought of Twitter (for goodness sake) and wondered about where that pragmatic and generous spirit of compromise had gone to. No matter, Pevsner goes on:

“Then the eminently civilised faith in honesty and fair play, the patient queuing, the wisdom in letting go in Ireland, in India, in Burma, a strictly upheld inefficiency in the little business-things of every day, such as the workman’s job in the house, windows that will never close, and heating that will never heat, a certain comfortable wastefulness and sense of a good life, and the demonstrative conservatism of the wig in court, the gown in school and university, the obsolete looking shop-window in St. James’s Street, the Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, the Keeper of the Queens Swans, the Portcullis Poursuivant, the City Companies, and £-s.-d., and yards and acres, and Fahrenheit. All those things seem as eternal as the rock of Gibraltar.”

I recognised it at once as the picture of England and Englishness that my father believed in and loved. Pevsner, in the lecture, does offer different, historical, perspectives but concludes:

Now that I have said so much to show what is not permanent in the national characteristics of England, may I indulge in a few examples of how surprisingly much after all does appear to be permanent. Paul Hentzner, the German tourist who came to England in 1598, already says the English are ‘impatient of anything like slavery’. Misson in about 1690 says they ‘eat a huge piece of roast beef on Sunday…and the rest cold the other days of the week’.
Their idea of vegetables, says Karl Philipp Moritz in 1782, is ‘a few cabbage leaves boiled in plain water’. The English do not work too much, says Sorbière in 1653, they believe that ‘true living consists in knowing how to live at ease’. And one more example, Antonio Trevisan, Venetian Ambassador to Henry VII in 1497, remarks that the English say, ‘whenever they see a handsome foreigner: he looks like an Englishman’. Saussure, who was a very shrewd observer, says the same: ‘I don’t think there is a people more prejudiced in its own favour than the British’.

And go to Ogden Nash, and you will find this:

Let us pause to consider the English
Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
Because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz:
That to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is.

My father to a T.

It helped me realise that, child of the sixties that I was, when I came home from grammar school head filled with notions of English bad behaviour abroad and fallibility at home – all narratives that challenged this charming, white, middle class view of the people we were, I wasn’t just debating a point, I was challenging a faith.

I also wonder now, 63 years later, what has stood the test of time and what Englishness means now.

 

Mad dogs or Englishmen