Erasing history

The news these days are full of stories of social unrest. Something that has been brewing for a while, as society divides become greater, rather than narrower.
However, I find myself perplexed by the practice of tearing down statues of people who were slave traders or racists, along with their other attributes, for which they were celebrated.

 


History is built in shades of grey: unfortunately human nature is such that the strong often prey on the weak.
Alexander the Great built wondrous libraries in his glorious conquest of the ‘known world’, but also massacred plenty of ‘barbarians’ along the way. In the democracy of classical Athens, there were slaves, who did not have a vote—and neither did women, or foreigners.
The men who hauled blocks of marble to build the Parthenon were not blessed with paid holidays and health care. Should we tear down the Pyramids, because they were built in sweat and blood?
Religions and sects have persecuted, burnt, and tortured people who did not share their beliefs. Should we tear down the churches and temples?
Some of the slave traders were black themselves, preying upon their own kind. And racism is not confined to blacks—many others have borne the brunt of it. Native Americans, Maoris, Armenians, Jews, Tutus, the list is long—anyone who found themselves in the minority in the place they lived in. Human nature.


Here is an anecdote: I recall, when visiting one of the Balkan countries during Communism—I think Bulgaria—being shown around a monument by a local guide. It consisted of a large circle dug into the ground, two stories below. It was open to the sky and, all around the perimeter, stood a row of larger-than-life bronze statues representing workers: one held a scythe, another a plow, a third a hammer, and so on. The whole thing was rather ghastly but, was was weirder still, was that when I asked the guide who was the sculptor who made them, she answered, ‘We don’t know.’
‘How can you not know? This is not antique, it’s recent.’
She hemmed and hawed, then she said: ‘He fell out with the regime, and his name was erased from the books.’
Such a narrow minded way of looking at things.


Things that happened, happened. Should we try to erase the past? I think it’s better to reserve our energies for improving the present—with more efficient laws, and with reform, not destruction. Thousands of people are slaves still, in the 21st century—and they’re not all black. There’s a huge immigration crisis, worldwide. There are people now, today, who have made fortunes exploiting others, but everyone sucks up to them, because their money gives them power, and they also take good care to make large donations to charities and universities. There are huge corporations operating on the returns of sweatshops and the like.

Is it a solution to stop reading Rudyard Kipling, or showing Gone With The Wind?

I’m curious to know what everyone thinks about all this.

The Image of Greece

Fred Boissonnas (18 June 1858 – 17 October 1946), a Swiss photographer from Geneva, made several trips to Greece between 1903 and 1933, documenting all aspects of the country using notes, drawings and especially photographs. He published 14 photo albums dedicated to Greece, many of which belong to the thematic series entitled L’image de la Grèce (The Image of Greece). He travelled around the country, visiting archeological sites as well as remote villages—the first foreign photographer to do so. His aim was to contribute to the identity of Greece in Europe.

Parga, 1913


Boissonnas persuaded the Greek authorities that his photographs would enhance the country’s political, commercial and touristic image abroad.

 

Shepherds on Mount Parnassus, 1903


Looking at these pictures, one can be forgiven for asking, how?

 

 

Boissonnas being pulled up to a monastery in Meteora, by net.


Certainly, they are wonderful and picturesque daguerreotypes, but they portray a poor though beautiful country, where the traveler could hardly expect to find many comforts.

 

A street in Plaka, Athens
Market street, Andritsaina, 1903



Cities with roads still unpaved.

 

Metsovo, 1913

Barefoot village children.

 

View of the Parthenon, 1908



Unrestored antiquities.

Interior in Lakkoi, 1911

 

Village street in Elassona, 1903



Mostly small and unprepossessing houses.

The 17th-century bridge of Arta, to which an ancient legend is attached.



Because the photos are in black and white, they cannot show the pure blue skies, the sunny landscapes.

 

A courtyard in Akrata, 1903


The people in the photographs are unsmiling, being unused to posing, so the natural friendliness and hospitality of the Greeks is difficult to discern.

 

A wealthy man’s house in Kastoria, 1911


Also at the time people did not lounge on beaches in bikinis, getting a tan, so these are as far from contemporary travel photography as one can imagine.

Interior with loom, Andritsaina, 1903
A A celebration in Corfu, 1903


However, they are a document of those years, and as such fascinating. The clothes, the landscapes with few signs of human intervention, the simplicity of life.

 

Ermou Street, 1920. This is now one of the busiest shopping streets in downtown Athens. Note the Byzantine church of Kapnikarea at the end of the street.
A view of the Acropolis, with grazing sheep, 1903


At the time the photos did serve the purpose of promoting Greece to foreigners, and Boissonnas was financially aided and personally supported by prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, to whom his publications were dedicated. These were sent to all Greek embassies and the prominent political personalities of the era.

 

 

Day trip to Mycenae

Greece is now opening up its borders to travelers, so if any of you are thinking of taking the plunge, here’s another wonderful place to visit. For the rest, a little more armchair traveling on a ThrowbackThursday, from a trip taken in 2016

Letters from Athens

In the Iliad, Homer described Mycenae as ‘a city rich in gold.’ It was the legendary home of King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks who went to Troy to fight the Trojan War. The Greeks of classical antiquity idealized the Mycenaean period as a glorious period of heroes, closeness of the gods and material wealth, as described in the Trojan Epic cycle.
In 1876, amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set out to prove the historical accuracy of the Iliad by identifying the places described by Homer. Using the text of Pausanias, the second-century A.D. traveller, as his guide, he excavated the site at Mycenae, discovering the deep shaft graves where bodies were buried dressed in lavishly decorated shrouds adorned with gold items and diadems and with their faces covered by masks of gold or electrum (such as the Mask of Agamemnon, below).

Copy of the mask of Agamemenon Copy of the mask of Agamemenon

However…

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A bridge wrapped up.

Paris, 1985: I will never forget walking by the Seine with my French cousins on a moonlit night to see the Pont Neuf wrapped up like a parcel. Built in 1606, the Pont-Neuf has joined the left and right banks and the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris, for over 400 years.

 



The temporary installation (lasting for 14 days) was completed by 300 workers who deployed 450,000 square feet (41,800 square meters) of woven polyamide fabric, silky in appearance and golden sandstone in color. The fabric was restrained by 8 miles (13 kilometers) of rope and secured by 12.1 tons of steel chains encircling the base of each tower underwater.

 


The artwork was the brainchild of the artists Christo, who has sadly just died, and his wife Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009.

All expenses for The Pont Neuf Wrapped were borne by the artists (as in all their other projects) through the sale of preparatory drawings and collages as well as earlier works. The artists did not accept sponsorship of any kind.

 



Christo and Jeanne-Claude were known for their large-scale site-specific installations wrapped in fabric. Their work took years of careful preparation, involving technical solutions, political negotiation, permitting and environmental approval, hearings and public persuasion. Their purpose: the immediate aesthetic impact; joy, beauty, and new ways of seeing the familiar.

The Pont Neuf was their only work I had the chance to see live, and it left an indelible impression. Reading of Christo’s death brought it all back as if it was yesterday, so I felt like talking about it, even though I’ve just said I wouldn’t keep writing obituaries.

 


Anyone interested in photos of their other works (which included the Reichstag in Berlin, Running Fence in California, Surrounded Islands in Miami and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park ) you can click .here.

All Lives Matter

On this last day of May I am shocked and saddened by the events in America. Living through a worldwide pandemic was supposed to make us kinder to one another. But, sadly, human nature does not change.



George Floyd was killed by a man who did not even mind being filmed while doing it. He has two kids at home. He was not armed, and there was no proof he’d done something wrong.

 



I remember reading a post on the blog of a virtual friend who has an autistic son. He’s doing well, but what happens when he’s old enough to start going out on his own? Where she lives in America autistic people carry a medical card, which explains why sometimes their behavior can seem unpredictable, or even aggressive—especially when challenged, or scared. Well, her fear is, that if her son is stopped by the police and he puts his hand in his pocket to get his card, he could be shot. Just because he’s black.



To me, this beggars belief. I am so lucky to have lived, and live, in places where you can walk the streets more or less safely.
We do take a lot for granted. And we must take a stand against this kind of cruelty.

All the pictures are imaginary portraits by the wonderful British artist Lynette Yadom-Boakye.

 

Road trip to Metéora

Throwback Thursday and time for some armchair traveling, for want of the real thing. I thought some of the newer readers would enjoy an account of this road trip taken in 2015, to the magical site of Meteora.

Letters from Athens

Taking advantage of the brilliant weather, we headed out for an overnight excursion. Our destination: Metéora, the largest complex of Orthodox monasteries in Greece, outside of Mount Athos.
The monasteries are built atop almost inaccessible sandstone peaks, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and Pindos Mountain, in central Greece.

image

Monks settled on these ‘columns of the sky‘ from the 11th century onwards. Twenty-four monasteries were built, despite incredible difficulties, at the time of the great revival of the eremitic ideal in the 15th century. Today there are six left.

To break up the four-hour journey, we stopped for a snack in the town of Domokos. The crisis is apparent here as well, with a lot of empty shops in the central street. An abrasive woman in a red pickup honked as we tried to park the car. The taverna…

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The horses of Susan Rothenberg

I don’t want this blog to be fielding a constant stream of obituaries, but I was sad to learn of the passing of Susan Rothenberg, an artist who’s been a great inspiration to me.



Born in 1945 in Buffalo, New York, Susan Rothenberg was a pioneer, in that her figurative paintings of the ‘70s were in direct opposition to the Minimalist abstract art that was in vogue in the New York art world at the time.





The paintings she mostly became known for were those featuring horses. Rothenberg depicted equine forms in a pared down style, against monochrome, vacant backgrounds. Sometimes, the horses were bisected; at others, they were contained within uneven geometrical forms. They usually appear alone, or in pairs. “The horse was a way of not doing people, yet it was a symbol of people, a self-portrait, really,” Rothenberg once said.


After the horses, Rothenberg moved on to painting disembodied heads and hands, and various objects.

 

 

At times, the images border on the surrealist, such as her improbable 1985 portrait of Piet Mondrian dancing in diffuse golden light, below.

 




In 1989, Rothenberg married conceptual artist Bruce Nauman and moved with him to a 750-acre ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico, near where Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin also lived and worked. They spent a lot of time in non-art-related activities, like horseback riding, walking the dogs, feeding the chickens, and were refreshingly uninterested in what was going on in the art world.

 

 

Rothemberg, in her own words: “I just don’t think there’s much stuff going on of the kind that I’m interested in, which is really just about painting. It’s not about issues, it’s not about politics, it’s not about process, it’s not about technology. I’m just a painter.”
Her recent work featured subjects including the inside of her studio and the natural surroundings by her home, using “dirtied-down” colors and thick, gestural painted surfaces to reflect the topography of the region.

Here’s a short video for those interested.

Weird Fish

It seems the Mediterranean is now full of ‘alien’ fish, which decided to emigrate to better seas, and so swam there from the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal.

They have thrived to the extent they are now threatening the eco-system, being both prolific breeders and aggressive towards native species; but they are already too numerous to eradicate.
So, what is the next best solution? Why, eating them of course, and thus killing two birds (fish?) with one stone: hopefully equilibrium will be established, while at the same time we can complement our calamari with rabbitfish, trumpetfish and lionfish.

 

Lionfish



At least this is the original idea of Greek conservationists, who have come up with a cookbook of recipes, so that tourists can be encouraged to try these new species. ‘Recipes for Edible Alien Species’ is published by two conservation organizations, the Cyclades Preservation Fund and iSea.

In the book, written in both Greek and English, Greek chefs have paired these species with classic Mediterranean ingredients like olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and parsley. While it doesn’t have the glamour of a Nigella cookbook, the recipes sound delicious: it would probably be a good idea to take some good photos of the finished dishes and post them on Instagram. You can find the cookbook here

 

Rabbitfish


Tempting locals and tourists to eat the invaders will help the environment, but also fishermen to make a living. A campaign called Pick the Alien, launched in a few islands such as Santorini, Amorgos, and Zakynthos, aims to encourage people to choose these fish on the menu of their favorite fish taverna.

Would I try them? Of course. I’m always in favour of new tastes, as long as it’s not fried insects or monkey brains, even if the former are also touted as a help for the environment.

MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

Staying on the armchair traveling theme, I’ve been avidly following Mary Smith’s adventures in Afghanistan. Take a look at her blog, her posts are also full of wonderful photos.

Mary Smith's Place

Bamiyan, Autumn 1989

IMG_0011 (Custom) The view from my window

A murmur of male voices penetrated my subconscious in the morning. A row of men wearing expressions of ill-concealed curiosity gazed in the direction of my sleeping bag. A ferocious glare from Khudadad had them gathering up their belongings and murmuring goodbyes as they hurriedly left the room. The cook, in a grease spattered apron, was busy at his stove, for some reason situated on the veranda overlooking the street. Breakfast smelt good.

Through an inch deep layer of oil I recognised a fried egg, under which was a kind of meat stew layered with slices of fried tomatoes. Scooping up some of this mess with a piece of fresh, warm nan I tasted cautiously. It was delicious. Cholesterol and calorie laden as any cooked breakfast should be, by the time I had mopped clean the dish with a final piece of…

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Lockdown travel

I have a feeling that traveling for pleasure will not be possible for the foreseeable future, because, even if it is allowed, who wants to spend a couple of weeks in quarantine upon arrival, or be unsure of being able to return home?
Therefore, now’s the time to turn to the inexhaustible pleasures of literature, in order to visit places one would love to explore—or, even better, places where one wouldn’t dream of setting foot in, except from the comfort of an armchair.
I know that nowadays you can see everything live on a screen: endless documentaries, some absolutely marvelous (thanks, David Attenborough—and again, some in places where you wouldn’t set foot in even if you were paid). Films set in exotic locations, YouTube videos, even Google Earth. You can go everywhere without leaving the house.

 

Picador travel classics editions. Bought years ago in Cambridge



However, the attraction of reading is not to be underestimated: you have a more intimate insight into the writer’s reactions and thoughts, and your imagination is allowed a much freer rein.
Travel writing has existed since the depths of time—for Greeks it probably started with Homer, the Odyssey being the primordial record of a sea voyage. And there are also the memoirs of Herodotus, who had traveled over almost all of the ‘known world.’
But if the Greeks have a healthy dose of seawater in their veins and have always been obsessive traders, no one can beat the English as far as exploration for its own sake goes (although they too were traders, of course.)

 



I have just finished Daughter of the Desert, the biography, by Georgina Howell, of Gertrude Bell, who thought nothing of traveling for 10 hours per day through the desert on a camel, dressed in a split skirt and a keffieh. Alone except for her servants.
The sheer discomfort of her days bogles the mind until, that is, one reads of worse travails. At least Gertrude Bell could rely on a nice bath upon setting up camp, in her custom-made canvas bath packed by her servants and carried by the camels in her caravan. This was usually followed by dinner served on white linen, with silver and crystal. She also had trunks full of evening gowns which she wore to visit the tribal sheiks she met on her travels.


Cherry-Gerrards at the hut in Cape Evans 1911


Apsley Cherry-Garrard was 24 when he signed up to join Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Polar expedition in the Antarctic, in 1911. When he got back he went off to fight in the Great War. Years later, he wrote a memoir of this unforgettable voyage, called The Worst Journey in the World. During the whole expedition, the discomforts and privations the men suffered were unimaginable—they had decided to take ponies and, when these were impractical, they manhauled their sledges—but they still managed to enjoy the stunning scenery, and ‘geologise’ by gathering rock and mineral specimens which only added to the weight they had to pull— and they even packed Christmas puddings and books to read in the interminable Antarctic winter.

 

Manhauling the sleds



The ‘Worst Journey’ in the book’s title refers to a trip Cherry-Garrard made with two companions to Cape Crozier on Ross Island during the austral winter, in order to bring back an unhatched emperor penguin egg. This was to help scientists prove the evolutionary link between all birds and their reptile predecessors by the analysis of the embryo. However, in the book he describes the whole Scott voyage, from the meticulous preparations onwards, ending with his thoughts of why the expedition failed. The Brits were pipped at the post by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who shunned any scientific pretensions and relied on dogs and skis to arrive at the South Pole a month earlier, traveling light and fast. A compelling and  thrilling account of a different reality.

 



Another fascinating book on my short list is In Patagonia, by the inveterate traveler Bruce Chatwin. Patagonia is one of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet. Chatwin paints a lovely picture of the boundless scale of the landscape and the lost specks of astonishing human endeavour in this vast, lonely region. But most of all, he peoples his tales with a varied and astounding cast of wild and eccentric, if not downright crazy, characters, who were attracted from all over the world to this stark and unforgiving land. He is most interested in describing what he used to call internal landscapes. 



Bruce Chatwin wrote the introduction to Sybille Bedford’s book, A visit to Don Otavio, a splendidly humorous tale of two middle-aged ladies traveling in Mexico (see the cover in the first photo). A little old fashioned but delightfully irreverent, the book reads more like a novel. Bedford’s prose is dazzling, and her insights enchanting. As she herself said, ‘Of course it’s a novel. I wanted to make something light and poetic…I didn’t take a single note when I was in Mexico.’

 



And, last but not least, a book I keep giving to people as a gift, because of how much it amused me (I’ve no idea whether any of them read it, actually.)
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette, (even the title is delightfully eccentric) is a book about his travels in Paraguay. A beautiful and captivating country, one of the most exotic and extreme in South America, but not a place for the timid tourist. According to Gimlette, the place is teeming with dictators, ex Nazis, fraudsters and missionaries. It is a stage for utopian experiments and violent coups. As the Amazon synopsis describes it, ‘The beguiling Paraguayans, despised and feared by their neighbours, are unfathomable. They adore Diana, Princess of Wales, as if she were still alive and hundreds volunteered to fight for Britain in the Falklands War. Their politics are Byzantine but when the Vice-President is murdered, they call in Scotland Yard.

If any one of these books does not transport you out of lockdown for a few hours, I will eat my hat. Happy reading!