40 years or so, after

In 1975 we lived in a house in Gordon Town, Jamaica, and in the garden the owner kept two, 500+ year old Spanish jars. One day a photographer turned up to photograph the jars for a magazine – National Geographic, Jamaica Journal, History Today, I forget which. The kids were playing in the garden, and the photographer took a few shots with them in it, not for publication but for us. This one included Dominic.

Dominic, aged 10, leaning on a jar (a tinajón or aljibe) Gordon Town, Jamaica

In the last week of September this year, Dominic came with us to stay in lovely Mia and Guy’s apartment by the Med at Valras-Plage, in the Hérault, Languedoc. On a visit to the Oppidum d’Ensérune, near Béziers, we came across another large jar, this one 2000 years old and Gallo-Roman, not Spanish. Fortunately we had Dominic at hand for the photo.

Dominic, aged 51, leaning on a jar (dolium) at the Oppidum d’Ensérune, Languedoc

The Oppidum is an amazingly well preserved Gallic village  which was occupied without interruption between the 6th century BC and 1st century AD, its location being chosen probably because it was a hill with good views over the entire coastal plain and out to sea.

The view looking north-east from the Oppidum d’Ensérune

The dolia were buried in the ground on the lower floor of the houses and were used for long term  storage of food such as grain, pulses, nuts and dried fruit.

Dolia in situ at Ensérune

 

Travels with Mrs Bradypus in the Cévennes
… but without a donkey

We sit, Mrs Bradypus and I, in the early Autumn morning sunshine, drinking coffee, in the Cafe de l’Univers overlooking a small market place, the cinema and the Police Municipale. Starting early, we had driven up to St-Jean-du-Gard from the coast near Beziers, through vineyards and sorghum fields at first, then on through the more rugged foothills.

RLS & Modestine

RLS, in whose footsteps we are following, but backwards, ended rls6Travels with a Donkey through the Cévennes, the account of his journey, here. Here he parted with Modestine, who was too lame to go on without some days rest, for Stevenson was in a hurry to get to Alès, where his letters awaited him. As we sit I read to Mrs B. the last few paragraphs from my battered, heavily annotated 4th form copy of the ‘Travels‘ .

“I determined to sell my lady friend and be off by the diligence that afternoon. Our yesterday’s march, with the testimony of the driver who had pursued us up the long hill of St. Pierre, spread a favourable notion of my donkey’s capabilities. Intending purchasers were aware of an unrivalled opportunity. Before ten I had an offer of twenty-five francs; and before noon, after a desperate engagement, I sold her, saddle and all, for five-and-thirty. The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain. […]

It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver, and rattling through a rocky valley with dwarf olives, that I became aware of my bereavement. I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone,

‘…… and oh!
The difference to me!’

For twelve days we had been fast companions; we had travelled upwards of a hundred and twenty miles, crossed several respectable ridges, and jogged along with our six legs by many a rocky and many a boggy by-road. After the first day, although sometimes I was hurt and distant in manner, I still kept my patience; and as for her, poor soul! she had come to regard me as a god. She loved to eat out of my hand. She was patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, and inimitably small. Her faults were those of her race and sex; her virtues were her own. Farewell, and if for ever–

Father Adam wept when he sold her to me; after I had sold her in my turn, I was tempted to follow his example; and being alone with a stage-driver and four or five agreeable young men, I did not hesitate to yield to my emotion.”

Maybe starting at the end – a rather sad end – may not be the best of ideas. But where we are coming from dictates that we go North, just as where Stevenson was coming from, Le Puy-en-Velay, dictated that he should go South.We thought however: set out sad, and as we progress our mood can only brighten.

I had known Stevenson as an infant, when I was often read to sleep with poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses.

All night long and every night,
When my mama puts out the light,
I see the people marching by,
As plain as day, before my eye.
Armies and emperors and kings,
All carrying different kinds of things,
And marching in so grand a way,
You never saw the like by day.
rls1
Robert Lewis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)

Like most boys of my generation, I read Kidnapped and Treasure Island around the age of 11 or 12; I only came across Travels as a set book in 4th form. To the twelve year old, Stevenson’s novels were just Ripping yarns, not literature! But it was studying Travels as an academic exercise that opened my eyes to just what a great writer RLS was, and how by studying and imitating the style of the authors that came before him, he honed his craft, to become the great writer and story-teller he was. In Travels he combines this craft with a restless curiosity about people and the places they live to produce a masterpiece of travel writing.

We set out

Our route is planned to follow as exactly as possible the roads and paths he took, avoiding the easy modern corniches built for motor cars, opting instead for the minor roads hacked from the sides of mountains.
rls2
Except that we do not realise how minor these roads, how narrow they will be, and how few barriers there are between the traveller and a deadly drop many tens of meters down the mountainside. All unaware we set out, Mrs Bradypus and I, mounted on our Peugeot Modestine.

We knew that we could not do the whole thing in a day, so our aim is to get at least halfway before heading home. Our first objective is lunch at Florac, in the Parc national des Cévennes, at the head of the Tarn Gorges. 53 kilometres, a little over an hours drive – should be a doddle.

The first stage goes well; the road from St-Jean-du-Gard up to the Col-de-Lamira lookout is a good one, with many straight bits. For a while after the col, we continue to make reasonable progress, as we run along the side of the deeply sloped valley of the river Gardon de Mialet. At first there is little traffic and we can keep up a good pace. But the further we go up into the mountains the narrower and more twisted the road becomes, and, the closer we get to lunchtime, the more white vans come toward us at speed, around totally blind bends, threatening to force us off the road, over the precipice, barrelling into assured death below.

Hardships on the way

We have been going now for over an hour and a half, covering  about 18 kilometres, when we reach Saint-Étienne-Vallee-Française. Here Mrs Bradypus calls a halt and demands a break at a café. For the last 8 kilometres she has become alarmed and terrified by the danger of the road. The more we move forward, the more terrified she becomes, the more distrustful of my driving. All my assurances that I grew up in the mountains of Jamaica, learned to drive on mountain roads worse than this, fall on deaf ears.

We take a break, following the signs to the Café Parasol, which turns out to be an empty, roofless, abandoned shack on the side of the mountain above Saint-Étienne. No respite here then, or anywhere else in the village. I get Mrs Bradypus to summon up all her courage, and if necessary close her eyes, and we set out again for our lunch at Florac. I do not tell her that Florac is over 30 kilometres away and the roads look just as twisted on the map.

For the next 20 kilometres or so things get no better: the road is narrow and dangerous, the distance to fall over the side even greater, the white vans still barrel around the corners oblivious to what’s coming the other way, Mrs Bradypus now white with fear. We approach little villages hopeful of finding a bistro or auberge where we can take a break from the terrors of the way, for it is now well into lunchtime, but with no success. An hour passes.

Parc National des Cévennes
Parc National des Cévennes

Then suddenly the road straightens out as we descend gently into a high valley, cross a small stream and climb up again through a long, sharp hairpin bend, straight onto a major National road, graced at the intersection, by a truck stop and a small Routier restaurant. We are the last in for lunch, all that is left is a Cévenne mutton stew, the perfect antidote to  mountain road terror. For the first time since we left Col-de-Lamira behind us Mrs Bradypus looks happy and satisfied.

Abandon Ship!

Over dessert, crème brulée,  Mrs B says she has had enough of travelling like RLS, from now on we must stick to big roads, wide enough for at least two white vans, and with a white line down the middle. Happily, the road we have just joined meets this requirement and goes all the way to Florac. After an afternoon in the town, we abandon Stevenson to other tourists and some walkers, and without a tear set off back to St-Jean-du-Gard on the Cévennes Corniche, a spectacularly beautiful road which meets Mrs Bradypus’ stipulation exactly.

Footnote: I plan someday to do the journey in its entirety; but then I will leave Mrs Bradypus behind. With her permission, I am sure!

Happy Birthday Uncle Bob!

Uncle Bob – Robert Verity – was born in Belize, British Honduras, now Belize City, Belize. When he was six, in 1917, he came with his family to Jamaica, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Were he still alive, today he would be 105.

As I typed the last sentence, I realised that it is a nonsense. The truth is that Uncle Bob is 105 years old today. Although he died physically, he lives on in the memory of the thousands of Jamaicans whose lives he touched and changed.

So: “Happy Birthday Uncle Bob!”

31 Years Ago today

Robert Godwin Beresford Verity (c. 1939)
Robert Godwin Beresford Verity (c. 1939)

Today, 31 years ago, Bob Verity died, in Kingston, Jamaica. He was a brilliant, creative, joyful man, who lived life to the full, had many careers, and left behind a legacy of solid achievement, great memories for all who knew him, and a mountain of love. We miss him so.

 

The following photos were all taken in August 1939, on a banana boat travelling home to Jamaica, a few days after his marriage to Jacqueline.

anitascans007 Solitaireanitascans009

Rotten to the core

So, Apple was in a joint enterprise with the corrupt politicians and tax authorities of the Republic of Ireland, to ensure that it had an advantage over its competitors – and coincidentally all other honest businesses in the EU, competitor or not – that allowed it to avoid paying practically all of the already very low corporate tax – 12.5% – that country uses to attract so-called “inward investment”. In one recent year the largest corporation on earth managed to pay only £50 on every £1,000,000 of sales on three continents. Now it, and its corrupt partners, have been rumbled.

The European competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has been investigating Apple’s complex tax dealings for the last three years. Yesterday she blew the whistle on this tax scam. She told Apple and Ireland that what they were doing was illegal under EU law, a law Ireland willingly signed up to and which is binding on all EU states. “Member states cannot give tax benefits to selected companies – this is illegal under EU state aid rules.” she said, adding “The commission’s investigation concluded that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple, which enabled it to pay substantially less tax than other businesses over many years.”

I suppose that after the ‘Panama Papers’ revelations, we should not be surprised that Apple is up to no good. I have always taken it as read that Apple is a company very much on the dark side. How could a company founded by, and modelled on, a sociopathic narcissistic bully, be otherwise? So it probably isn’t shocking for some people that Apple is little better than your neighbourhood money launderer, banana republic dictator, mafia don or Vladimir Putin. But it is, to me anyway, profoundly disturbing.

For here we have one of the leading technology companies in the world – makers of some of the most desired products on earth, whose profit margins are the envy of the business world, and whose skill at consumer packaging is unrivalled – being so greedy for profit that it is prepared to act like a common criminal. This is a company which, because of its exalted position and the love and loyalty it attracts from so many (misguided?) people worldwide, should be setting an example by paying its fair share of taxes. Instead, it funnels vast amount of its very real sales into an almost imaginary company that exists only on paper: it has no staff, no offices, is based nowhere, and is in no tax jurisdiction. It pays no tax what so ever. By comparison, Amazon and Starbucks and Google come up smelling of roses.

Meanwhile, in Ireland the country in which Apple really exists, in which those sales should be booked, and in which it should pay tax, its partners in illegality – some would say crime – make up the loss by passing Apple’s share to ordinary people and honest businesses to pay; or reduces their benefits; and, in the case of public servants, cuts their pay and pensions, because the tax take is not enough. You wonder, should Apple pay its fair share of tax, how many schools could be built, sick people treated, homeless housed in that Emerald Isle?

Is Apple abashed? Hell no. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, almost in the persona of his dead master, is crying foul, supported by a phalanx of neo-cons and Ayn Rand groupies. Even the American government is threatening to rain down fire and brimstone on the EU for its impertinence in challenging the God given and manifest destiny of any American corporation to cheat the rest of the world.

Is the Irish government jumping with joy at the prospect of a massive windfall? Apparently not. It too is crying foul. The Irish finance minister said yesterday that he would appeal. “The decision leaves me with no choice but to seek cabinet approval to appeal. This is necessary to defend the integrity of our tax system, to provide tax certainty to business and to challenge the encroachment of EU state aid rules into the sovereign member state competence of taxation.” Or in other words, to defend his state’s right to break the law when it sees fit.

Now, there is a phrase in the ministers statement that keeps cropping up and which brings me out in hives: it’s “…provide […] certainty to business.” It crops up in the Brexit debacle as well. Now, only a fool would look for certainty in anything in this universe, for it is a universe built of uncertainty. Like all human affairs, business is based on uncertainty. Businessmen are supposed to take risks to gain profit, and risk is just a measure of uncertainty. Business without risk is not enterprise, it is rent collection. So when a business expects a government to give it certainty, and a government attempts to do so, batten down the hatches and lock your daughters, for evil is abroad. And funnily enough, evil is often Apple shaped.

A Declaration of Interest

I have long held that, whenever the subject of the Apple Corporation and its products are discussed on radio and TV, or written about in the press, the commentators and journalists should be forced to declare an interest if they own or use Apple products. For Apple products have a weird capacity to turn sane men and women into drooling idiots; to reduce them to an infantile state; or to persuade them that a perfectly serviceable machine is now obsolete because the great Apple has released a minor revision. Just think that tedious fellow Stephen Fry. And I even know some techno-literate people who are not immune!

As you know, whenever I write of Apple, I usually add the tag #rottentothecore. That should tell you all. But because I believe in honest journalism, I must declare an interest: I have never owned an Apple product. Nor have I ever regularly used an Apple product, except for very brief periods of less than half a day, just long enough to decide that I can get an equivalent, usually better, product elsewhere, and usually cheaper. Furthermore the alternative product will probably not stop working the day after the minimum warranty expires and will probably be repairable if a fault develops.

But I will admit that I have once purchased an Apple product. Many years ago I gave my faithful life companion, Mrs Bradypus, an iPod Nano, thinking she would enjoy listening to her favourite ‘tunes’ (Vaughan Williams, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, etc.) as she wondered around doing whatever it is life companions do keeping sloths like me in good health and grooming. She was delighted. After some struggle she managed to persuade the thing to accept her ‘tunes’ collection from her (non-Apple) computer without Apple forcing her to buy them all over again from something called iTunes. She listened for an hour or so, and then put the Nano in a drawer, where it remains even now, hoping I guess to be liberated, probably by Stephen Fry.

Another year

Well, that time has rolled around again, so Bradypus wishes his reader A very Merry Christmas (so, it’s a bit late but there are still just over 10 days to go!) and every thing good you could wish for in 2016!

On Being Precise

I have been gently prodded to write this by my cousin in Tarn-et-Garonne. She writes that she is waiting for my comments the Paris Black Friday Bloodbath, and, you will realise, she is not talking about some American-import shopping spree.

It is not for want of trying that I have not written before. Nearly three weeks on from that terrible, bloody, pointless night, I have no coherent thoughts about the act itself, the men who carried it out, the cause in whose name they created such carnage, or what an effective response might be. Yes, I am revolted by the cruelty of it all. Yes, I have no sympathy with the killers ortheir cause. Yes, I am determined not to let any group of terrorists deter me from living life to the full. But of this particular barbarity itself, I can find nothing to say that will explain it or enlighten you in any way. So I take Wittgenstein’s aphorism to heart – Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

But even the most slothful sloth, made speechless by the event itself, must have thoughts about the context in which it happened, the fallout, and the way ahead. This sloth cannot ignore the constant news of our continent ‘going to war against terrorism’; of bad bills limiting our freedoms rushed through sundry parliaments; of decisions by many countries to bomb Syria to rid it of jihadist (oh, and also Assad) even if it means sending it back to the dark ages. All this is disturbing enough to make a sloth think.

I have form where terrorism is concerned. For more than thirty-five I worked in London, in buildings that were on IRA target lists; commuted through target stations; used targeted public buildings. We learned to take a few basic precautions, the IRA got through and bombed us from time to time, but life continued pretty much as before. We lived our lives as we would have done anyway, and survived to see the IRA, and their Protestant counterparts, for what they really were – armed, criminal thugs.

I lived and worked in Jamaica, in Kingston, during the first half of the ‘70s, when the civil war that we called ‘political violence’, first broke out in all its glory. Terrorism was the main strategy of both sides; nightly shoot-outs the norm; gun laws, gun courts, curfews the State’s response. We learned to take a few basic precautions, we didn’t drive through ‘war zones’, the violence was visited on people we knew from time to time, but life continued pretty much as before. We lived our lives as we would have done anyway, and survived to see the PNP and JLP militias for what they really were – armed, criminal gangsters.

So I have some experience of getting through this grim stuff.

Today I live, and sometimes work, in France, where we have been attacked twice this year by an enemy about whom we know amazingly little. France is not alone. The same enemy has staged terrorist attacks in other European countries, and in Asia and Africa. We know something of their numbers, where they live, what they do; much of what we know comes from unreliable sources – official and unofficial – and from their own, very effective publicity machine. So, in our public debate, we seem to characterise IS, or ISIS, or Daesh, in the terms of its own publicity, and rarely, if ever, in terms of what it really is.

If I am right about this, that we are as yet ill-informed about the true nature of our enemy, then, as long as that ignorance lasts, we will be unable to formulate an effective response. As a humble rural sloth, I have no idea what we should do, but I know that there must be something effective that can be done. I also know that we will not find it if we continue to flail out in ignorance – sending a bomber here, doing a deal with an evil dictator there, charging about everywhere. What we need is a good understanding of what is really happening out there; why these people are doing these things – the reality that lies behind their propaganda; their strengths and weaknesses.

But most of all, we need a dose of precision, to be minutely exact in the words we use about this situation and sharply define the realities. So, to get the ball rolling, here is a start in three paragraphs:

  • President François Hollande, like George Bush and Tony Blain before him, declares that we are at war against terror. Well, to be precise, terrorism is a strategy or a tactic, not an enemy. We cannot fight a war against terrorism, any more than we can fight a war against containment. To counter the strategy or tactic of terrorism, we must first know all there is to know about the enemy deploying the strategy. Basic Sun Tzu: Know your enemy. Armed with that knowledge we can work out effective counter-strategies and defeat him. I realise that President Hollande, and any other world leader, after an event like the attack on Paris and with everyone demanding action, will find it very hard to just take time to think precisely. But ill-informed action is worse than none at all: just think Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan.
  • Do we know precisely what is going on in the Middle East? I doubt it. Babies see the world quite differently from adults. Their view is distorted by awareness only of their needs and feelings; having not yet developed a sense of context that includes the needs and feelings of others, they only appreciate their own, distorted, point of view. We are like that when bad things happen to us. So a terrorist attack in our back yard looms large, obscuring an even bigger catastrophe that may lie somewhere behind. It seems to me that this is happening to us in Europe now. We are interpreting the attacks in Paris, and Brussels, etc., as an attack on our way of life, our culture, our very existence, when in fact it is probably a side-show to another circus, collateral damage from another battle. To find out if this is indeed the case, we must get a precise understanding of the real situation in the Middle East. This reality is, I believe, a civil war between Arabs. The sides in this war represent a confusing variety of causes, civil, political and religious, and this obscures the real nature of the conflict. We see what we want to see: brave youth struggling for democracy in the Arab Spring; repressive, entrenched elites enforcing their order; fanatical jihadists imposing Islam; gangster states protecting their criminal enterprises. But in reality this is a struggle between, on one hand, an older generation of supporters of a largely secular, Arab Nationalism that prevailed through the middle and late years of the 20th Century, but failed to deliver good government and growing prosperity for all; and on the other, a younger generation that wants a better world, but cannot agree what that better world looks like, but are still willing to shed blood to achieve their uncertain goals. Like in all civil wars, the casus belli are incomprehensible to those outside the civitas at war. We intervene at our peril. Paris, and the other attacks, are warnings to us that for as long as we don’t really understand what is going on, we should stay out of the cauldron.
  • There is a tendency in Europe to conflate the current refugee crisis with the terrorist threat from Daesh and other jihadists, and it is true that one or more of the terrorists who carried out the Paris attack entered the EU posing as Syrian refugees. But they didn’t need to enter that way: as EU born nationals of France and Belgium they could have come in quite legitimately by any number of other routes.  There are also a small number of deluded young men and women in our towns and cities who can be summoned to do carnage with a simple Skype call. The refugee crisis and the terrorism are consequences of the same civil war, but are not to be confused with each other. Nor, if we are rational, should we be afraid to welcome refugees from this civil was, even at the risk of some bad apples arriving in the crop. The ‘little-Europe’ lobby and the madder fringe-conspiracy theorists, would have us believe that ‘The Muslims’ are taking over Europe, are ‘swamping us’, and will force us all to be like them, i.e. like the jihadists. (They never mention the vast majority of Muslims: law abiding doctors, and lawyers, and farmers, and teachers, and shoe makers, and street cleaners and poets and scientists who lead lives indistinguishable from the rest of us.) To counter this way of thinking we must be very precise, this time about numbers:
    • The population of the EU is just over 500 million. Of this number, 31 million or 6.2 percent, were born outside the EU. The total population of Syria, as a immediate example, at the start of the war in 2011 was 23 million – that’s about 4.6% of the total population of the EU. So if every Syrian in Syria moved to the EU, still only just over 1 in every 10 members of the EU population would have been born outside the EU. Swamping? I don’t think so.
    • As for “the Muslims are taking over Europe”: of the EU’s total population of 500 million, 20.5 million are Muslims or from a Muslim background – that’s 4.1% of the population. Given current population growth and the total fertility rate (TFR) of the immigrant portion of that population, the figure will rise to 6% by 2030; but then begin to fall as the TFR falls to the same as the host population and the population ages. How would you imagine the 4.1% – or even the 6% – would go about persuading or forcing the rest of us, the 95.5% of largely sceptical Europeans, to convert to Islam?

Two final thoughts.

Despite the Paris attacks this year, the majority of terrorist attacks in Europe over the last 20 years have been carried out by political groups of the right and left, racist, anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim organisations and extreme nationalists of one stripe or another. Over that period the majority of victims have been either immigrants or Muslims. For some reason, most racist and anti-faith attacks are not recorded as terrorist related; although a petrol bomb through a family’s front window is a clearly terrorist attack, it is reported as a race crime throughout the EU. Nationalist attacks are often reported in crime statistics as ‘crimes of violence’.

Do not be afraid. Although the number killed in Paris two weeks ago takes the breath away, the odds of any one of us being affected by a terrorist attack, or being within 10Km of an attack, or knowing someone caught up in an attack are vanishingly small. So do not change your way of living, the risks are small, about as small as me being knocked down by an omnibus outside my front gate, on a road that is not a bus route!

Apologia

Since my last post, as long ago as the beginning of the year, I have been a prisoner of writer’s block. I started three pieces – a short story, an essay, and a joke. Then I became stuck, the words would not come or when they did, they were unsatisfactory.

I apologise to my Reader for this lapse, and if you have gone away and never return to read this, I understand. It has taken me nine months, but what follows is the fifth version – not draft but version – of the short story. The other four versions are in the rubbish bin. I hope this one is satisfactory. Put any lapses down to my inexperience as a fiction writer.

Perhaps one day I will finish the essay. The joke was not funny.