28 February 2011

Cruel Britannia

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 by Piers Brendon

Being a product of the British Empire, I have something of a soft spot for it. Piers Brendon doesn’t. This massive book, which took me nearly a month to finish, has almost nothing good to say about history’s biggest-ever empire, concentrating instead on land-grabs, exploitation of peoples and resources, imperial arrogance, corruption and perfidy, military and political blunders, atrocities of various kinds, acts of cowardice and betrayal, policies of neglect and policies of divide and rule. There is, admittedly, plenty of such material to choose from. I don't believe Brendon misses any of it.

What he does miss, apart from a handful of grudging references thinly sprinkled across more than 650 closely-printed pages, is the plethora of benefits that British rule brought the colonies. British-built roads, railways, seaports and airfields were designed to facilitate colonial commerce and project imperial power, yet were of incommensurable value to the local people who also used them. British trade and colonial economic development benefited locals too, and not just the comprador classes. British-run schools and missions were designed to create docile and usefully employable imperial subjects, yet also propagated modern knowledge, helped overcome superstition and ignorance and introduced to subject peoples the selfsame liberal and humanitarian ideas that would, in time, encourage them to demand and win their freedom. If a majority of the world’s peoples today can be termed ‘civilized’ in any sense, then it is the British and their empire that deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

Brendon isn’t interested in any of that. He just goes banging on about the horrors of British rule, even when forced to admit that other empires, from that of Rome to Japan’s notorious wartime ‘Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’, were far worse. A benign empire is, of course, a contradiction in terms; but I do believe the British tried harder than any other imperial power, and with more success, to resolve that contradiction.

It is hard to understand exactly what the author’s motivation was to research and write this book. Clearly he has an axe to grind and it cuts to the left, but this is just a smear job with no larger political conclusions drawn from it. I suppose there is a market for this kind of thing, presumably among leftist malcontents in the West. Many times I was tempted to quit reading and fling the book across the room. I persevered because of my interest in the subject; you might say I persisted for scholarly reasons.

And talking of scholarship, that in the book appears largely second-hand. Original sources are relatively few. The text is copiously annotated (there are nearly 100 pages of endnotes!) but most of the notes are just attributions of clever turns of phrase Brendon has mined from other people’s work; only rarely do they seem to offer factual support for his assertions. On the subject of my own country many of his statements are flatly wrong, leading me to believe that his scholarship regarding other parts of the erstwhile British Empire is probably just as sloppy.

Brendon also seems to have a personal grouse against Rupert Murdoch, and misses no opportunity to slander the man, the newspapers he owns, and even Murdoch's forebears. Astonishing, that he should descend to such pettiness in the midst of this Herculean literary effort.

Incidentally, and ironically, I borrowed this book from the British Council library in the capital city of the former British colony where I was born and still live. I guess it was put there by some of the aforementioned leftist malcontents; but whatever the cause, its presence on those shelves itself gives the lie to many of Brendon's slanders.

17 February 2011

Keep the Little Monsters at Home

This will be short and sour.

The BBC News Magazine web site has posted an article on the vexed question of toddlers in restaurants. While admitting (as who cannot) that they are a menace, the article goes on to offer an excuse or two for parents who insist on bringing the little beasts along, one of these being the desire to ‘get them used to restaurants’.

Well, I‘ve heard some sorry excuses for self-indulgent doting in my time, but that one takes, if you'll pardon the expression, the cake. Get them used to restaurants? Why, in heaven’s name? So that they can beggar their parents with expensive dining-out bills in early adolescence? Out-gourmet the Guide Michelin before they’re out of secondary school? Or just learn to draw increasingly bitter comparisons between Mum’s cooking and the canard aux herbes Sri lankaise they were served at the Lemon last night?

Do these fond parents really imagine they’re somehow socializing their kids by inflicting them on cringing strangers? What idiots. Toddlers cannot be socialized. They are monsters of id. They aren’t even properly human yet – to all intents and purposes, they’re still little animals, and half-formed ones at that. Besides, research has shown that parents don’t socialize kids; peer groups do. All Mummy and Daddy’s patient training in manners and decorum, all the coaxing and encouragement, all the gatings and punishments, even the beatings used by some parents as teaching aids, count for very little; it’s peer pressure and, a little later, a desire to impress the opposite sex that turns juvenile delinquents (that is, all kids) into socially viable individuals. And even the small contribution parents make in this area cannot begin until a child actually has some consciousness of others’ rights and feelings – a sensibility that does not develop, except possibly with respect to close blood relations, until the kid is well past the upchucking-in-public stage of life. And yes, I know some people never get past it, but that simply means they’re still toddlers in spite of the breasts and facial hair. This is true even if the breasts and facial hair are both on the same person.

Anyway, we all know this twaddle about getting children used to restaurants is just a lame excuse. People bring their toddlers to restaurants for one of two reasons: (1) they are so besotted by the issue of their loins that they cannot bear to be away from them for ten seconds or (2) they have run out of volunteers – even paid ones – for the job of babysitter. In the first of these cases we are clearly dealing with some sort of compulsive pseudonarcissistic disorder, requiring – oh, I don’t know, electroshock therapy and institutionalization, with the kids being taken into care, preferably at some remote, Spartan orphanage. In the second, you and I will be dining next to the quelled and demoralized parents of one or more pint-sized psychopaths, and we might not leave the restaurant alive.

There is absolutely no excuse for bringing children under the age of, say, five, to restaurants. Restaurants are adult places. Adult things are done in them – business, mutual social grooming, status competition and, above all, sex. Restaurants are vital, indeed sacred, to the central ritual of human mating – the gifts of food with which males of our species and its forebears have courted females for at least five million years. No-one, not even the broodiest biological-clock-obsessed thirtysomething woman, wants to be reminded of the consequences of courting and mating while engaged in the actual activity. The presence of children at such occasions is a turn-off comparable with a skip-load of offal being overturned next to one’s table. Indeed, the effect (and the smell) are often identical.

To encourage the restaurateurs of the world to come to their senses and impose a blanket ban on customers under the age of five, I propose that sane adults – which is to say, those unencumbered with children – take certain steps. These will include refusing to sit near family parties with small children, or better still, insisting that they be seated somewhere the sight, sound and smell of the little brutes will not offend other diners’ sensibilities. A quiet back-alley location, behind the restaurant among the garbage cans, would probably be best; as a second option, the manager’s office will do nicely. One might also refuse to pay one’s addition on the grounds that one’s health and appetite have been impaired by the stress of having to eat in public among small children, and furthermore forward any medical or psychiatric bills incurred over the following days to the restaurant management; but best of all, I think, will be to form a lobby group and organize restaurant boycotts. I shall shortly commence a canvass of friends, relatives, correspondents and Facebook hangers-on with this end in view.

As for the offending parents, they will just have to be sent to Coventry, won’t they? There or Siberia.

14 February 2011

The Voynich Review

The 'Galaxy' diagram from the Voynich Manuscript (left-hand page).
Note dark blot in approximate location of Sol.

The Voynich Manuscript is in the news again, this time because a team of scientists has established that it is at least a hundred years older than previously believed. If you haven't already heard of this mysterious and somewhat creepy document, the first link above will tell you all you need to know about it, and this one will allow you to view the Manuscript for yourself (just click on the pictures to see entire chapters). It is, quite possibly, the strangest book in the world.

Out of curiosity, I searched for it on the Goodreads website, where I'm a member, and to my astonishment found there actually was an entry for it. This being an opportunity far too good to pass up, I proceeded to write a review of the Manuscript, awarding it five stars. For your amusement, I reproduce this below. The idea that one of the diagrams represents the Galaxy is not mine; it originates, as far as I know, in this post on abovetopsecret.com.

A Review of the Voynich Manuscript 

No-one who has read this marvellous text could possibly fail to be captivated by its thesis and convinced by its arguments. Diego Almodovar, in his encyclopaedic critical survey of unread and undiscovered texts, Scriptorium Incognitum, devotes an entire chapter to the Voynich Manuscript, following what he calls the 'golden thread of induction' that runs through, and ties together, the various sections modern scholars have dubbed 'astrological', 'cosmological' and 'biological'; he claims that this conventionally indecipherable narrative develops an empirical proof of the alchemical principle, 'as above, so below'.

Almodovar refuses to speculate, however, on what might be the exact subject of the Manuscript and gives no precise listing of its contents. He disagrees with the various assertions of Kircher, al-Khimidi and others who have given their own opinions on the matter. Like Aldomovar, I too am convinced that until the recondite script in which the Manuscript is written is finally translated into a modern language, there is simply no point in making claims in this regard. It suffices merely to read it in the original, making use of the appropriate portion of the Key of Solomon to do so, and absorbing its message within its own peculiar context: that of a culture, indeed a race unknown to us, of whose provenance the only clue we have yet been able to decipher is the fact that one of the diagrams in the 'astrological' portion, when reversed as if viewed in a mirror, is clearly a diagram of the Galaxy with the position of our home star rendered as a broad black dot - more properly described as a blot - and on which a constellation of smaller dots appears in a location almost diametrically across the Galactic centre from Sol.

If, as it appears, the original diagram is in fact a very large-scale map of the Galaxy viewed from a point several hundred light-years south of the galactic plane, then one among this constellation of dots (which the careless scholar might dismiss as fly-specks or the results of a carelessly shaken fine quill pen) may indeed indicate the place of origin of the manuscript, or of its author, or of some being known to the author. Given the late mediaeval provenance of the Voynich Manuscript, this interpretation of the diagram raises a number of fascinating questions. These the text of the document answers satisfactorily, and I would write the answers here but for the difficulty of translating them into any known human tongue.

It is said that the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges was familiar with the Manuscript, and was inspired by it to write such well-known works as 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' and 'A New Refutation of Time'. However, it is not known when, where or by what agency Borges obtained a copy of the manuscript; it is certain he had no access to the original. This is, however, the least of the mysteries the Voynich Manuscript holds for us. I give this book (more properly, this codex) a richly earned five stars.

01 February 2011

The Angels Still Watch O’er Us

Alex Stewart was nearing the end of a long, difficult period of personal change and reappraisal when he first visited Sri Lanka in 1995. He may have felt that a change from his usual London scene would be good for him, and so it turned out. Stewart found his artistic vocation awaiting him here; and with it, a measure of peace of mind and zest for life, things he had thought lost to him for ever.
       Such is the story I have heard about Alex Stewart, with whom I am lightly acquainted in a social way, not at all intimately. In other words, it is gossip and may not be true. Whether it is true or not I really have no idea, but when I look at his paintings of Sri Lanka I think it might be. They illustrate what certainly appears to be a special relationship. Then again, if you look at his paintings of Indian scenes and subjects, they’re pretty similar, superficially at least, to the Sri Lankan ones. How many special relationships can one man have? Does it matter?
       Stewart is, as far as I can tell about these things, a surrealist. Which is to say that his paintings, although figurative, seem to straddle the boundary between reality and fantasy. I suspect this boundary is not fixed as rigidly in the painter’s mind as it may be in yours or mine; in his work it seems permeable, or capable of shifting back and forth, or sometimes, disconcertingly, not to be there at all. Then again, he is on record as saying – in reference to other work, not his Sri Lankan oeuvre – that ‘permission was the key, permitting myself to draw an internal world,’ suggesting that he does discriminate between interior and exterior realities. In a similar connexion he also speaks of depicting ‘the backlot of the mind’s film set, a series of images which when juxtaposed in an infinite combination provide clues and stories to... life experience.’ Perhaps, then, the Sri Lankan and Indian paintings depict the set itself, the film captured in performance – the life experience?
       There is no doubting that the plot is to some degree autobiographical. Stewart isn’t afraid of painting himself, and often appears as a recognizable character in his own work. There he is, pinkish, balding and looking ever so slightly out of place among the sari-draped angels, flying tuk-tuks and the rest of the tropical surrealist jamboree. What’s he doing there? What’s the story? Work it out if you can, or just make something up.
       It would take a better-educated, more perceptive intelligence than mine to parse the grammar of Stewart’s work. Some scenes appear to be just what they are and no more, others are quirky or bizarre without necessarily seeming to refer to anything beyond the frame of the picture, and yet others are clearly freighted with history and personal meaning for the artist but refuse to yield them up readily to the viewer. Maybe I just haven’t looked and thought hard enough, being too taken by the beauty of what I see bother much with the meaning of it. I suspect the artist will think this is fine.
       I really don’t think analysis is the way into the art of Alex Stewart. It’s more about the experience. His paintings are enchanting things, not just easy on the eye but on the heart. Looking at them, I actually feel myself becoming calmer, a gentler person, at least for the duration of the experience. There is something essentially good – morally speaking – about them. Acknowledging the existence of loss, sorrow and wickedness in the world, they reassure us still that these evils are not the whole of life, that indeed, despite their enormous temporal salience and power, they may not matter nearly as much as we think or fear they do. Even in his latest and most sombre collection, which has its première at the Barefoot Gallery this month, the angels still watch over us, and the tuk-tuks still ascend the path of their own headlamp-beams to heaven while their drivers, asleep in the back, dream prophetic dreams. Deep and holy mysteries hide everywhere beneath the mundane surface of things; we need not fear them so long as we respect them. Approached the right way, they are nurturing, fruitful, even benign. It says on Alex Stewart’s curriculum vitae that he is a therapist; certainly, I find looking at his paintings therapeutic. Maybe he finds painting them therapeutic, too, even if the work is not always easy.
       Surrealism, as a rule, mocks or attempts to rearrange the ancient relationship between art and the sacred. Alex Stewart’s paintings, though they partake, at least compositionally, of some of the automatism of the surreal, do the opposite: they reaffirm the relationship. The characters and scenes in them come from a holy place: a very special, mythical island of Lanka that only exists as a sort of epic poem inside the artist’s mind. It is a kinder, gentler and holier place than the wretched, plundered, ruined island of its inspiration ever will be again. Long may it endure. 

Once Upon A Timean exhibition of paintings by Alex Stewart, is at the Barefoot Gallery, Colombo, 11-27 February 2011.