On the brink? June 2017

On the brink? June 2017

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Some thoughts on returning from an idyllic week-long holiday in Cyprus
(… well, attending a friend’s wedding).

The wedding beach near Ayia Napa, Cyprus, May 2017. Photo: Freda Raphael

The weather was perfect Mediterranean every day, hot sun with a gentle sea breeze; the dazzling light, the sapphire sea, and the white sand almost too good to be true.

And the wedding, on a perfect, unspoiled beach, remote from other tourists, was both beautiful and very moving, one of the most touching I’ve ever been to.

To quote a very famous Italian (whom I’ll come back to):

amor di vero ben, pien di letizia;
letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.

love of the true good, full of joy;
joy that transcends all sweetness.*

The whole trip simply reinforced my unshakeable political and cultural position, which I repeat here quite unequivocally: I love Europe.

I don’t mean continental Europe that starts the other side of the Channel, but the whole of Europe of which we are still a part, politically, geographically and culturally.

Gordon in the Hidden Cave, near Capa Greco, Cyprus. Photo: Freda Raphael

On this trip, I liked particularly the multi-national flavour of the event. The bride is Russian, so many of her Russian relatives and friends were there, and the bridegroom, while English, has spent the last decade in the Far East (which is where he met her).

I also very much liked the Cypriot people: very polite, charming, helpful and hard-working. Everything is done to the highest standards: the hotel service exemplary and everything very clean. Everything runs on time. There is almost no litter, except that dropped each day by mindless tourists. The food is superb.

About the only thing that is wrong with it is the behaviour of some – I repeat, only some – of the other tourists, and not just the English. Surprisingly rude to the hotel staff, for example.

And this is where my first reservations start to creep in. While everything is done very well, the Cypriot tourist industry is nevertheless pandering to some of the worse aspects of indolent Western consumerism.

I suppose any tourist industry nowadays is forced to. By this, I mean the whole slobbish Western European sun-worshipping disco culture. Of course, it’s fun in small doses, but this is wall to wall, which unfortunately results in considerable noise pollution.

It was no fault of our hotel that nearby there were a number of discos that thumped out their dull beat every night until about a quarter to two in the morning (reaching a crescendo at about 1.30 am.) This is not a holiday destination for those who want some peace and quiet.

A surprising number of beach weddings take place here, and I am sure a lot of the older guests that come as a result have the same feelings as my own.

Ayia Napa Monastery. Photo: Freda Raphael

Just about the only music that was truly pleasing to the ears was the bell chiming at regular intervals from the old monastery – actually, played by striking a large ‘zylophone’ made of ancient stones hanging on cords in the monastery courtyard. Sadly, it was often nearly drowned out by the surrounding disco music.

And this is the crux of the matter: the clash of old and new civilisations and values (though it’s quite difficult to discern exactly what the modern values are).

One has to be honest about it: although the latest hotels are very well designed and no longer high-rise (i.e. far better than the first ones made in the 1960s and 70s) virtually the whole beautiful five-mile long coast of Ayia Napa – where we were staying – is being systematically ‘developed’. Some would say destroyed.

There are bulldozers removing rocks and rock pools from the beaches and new hotels shooting up in all the available gaps.

One of the most beautiful parts of the coast, at the ‘hidden caves’ near Cape Greco, has a new bulldozed track that will probably shortly be tarmacked and presages a new development on the cliff edge. At the moment, it is only accessible by 4×4 cars, or on foot, by an old rough track … or by quad bikes. Now, these are great fun but they are very noisy and belch diesel fumes. I am fearful of what is happening to the flora and fauna.

Hidden Cave near Capa Greco, Cyprus. Photo: Freda Raphael

Yet a lot of the old values remain. As I say, the people are very polite and welcoming … though they are a bit baffled by the Brits.

The subject of Brexit was scarcely touched on, but when it did come up the universal question was ‘why are we doing it?’ I couldn’t answer it because I’m as baffled as they are.

‘I woke to find myself in a dark wood’ – Dante Inferno I:2. Detail from engraving by Gustav Doré

And so I came back from sunny, near-idyllic, friendly Cyprus, to wet, stormy Britain …

… and the prospect of an extraordinary General Election, bounced on us by a panicky, greedy Prime Minister, who wants to increase her majority to pursue her crazy Hard Brexit strategy without hindrance, and it seems, without interference from Parliament as far as she is able.

And so we’re facing a retreat from what the author Ian McEwan has called ‘the most extraordinary, ambitious, liberal political alliance in recorded history [that has] overseen unprecedented peace and prosperity for 70 years.’ (The Guardian Review, 03.06.17)

I am sincerely hoping Mrs May will be thwarted in her wish, and that some kind of democratic sanity will reassert itself.

As to what it’s all about: who knows? At bottom, as I wrote in an earlier blog, and thousands of others have observed, some strange thuggish and irrational perversity seems to have taken Britain and the United States by storm over the last year.

It is of course characterised by an extreme form of vanity or pride – as personified by the American President and the British Prime Minister. Most of their supporters have clearly forgotten that, traditionally, Pride was regarded as the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Proud were accordingly placed by Dante on the lowest terrace of Purgatory.

And, right at the bottom of Hell (the Inferno), with his legs frozen in a sea of ice, broods the fallen Lucifer.

It seems that today, just before we cast our votes, we are teetering on the brink of a new self-induced hell.

‘O Saul, transfixed by your own sword …’ Dante Purgatorio XII:40

This is a new hell that makes our own country suddenly feel very alien to the vast majority of moderate, middle-ground voters. An undercurrent of division and hatred that I’ve never seen before in my lifetime, that relishes the tearing up of human rights, the continual cutting of our services (especially our famously good Health Service and even, now, our police forces), and even the prospect of using nuclear weapons.

It seems that our Defence Secretary actually believes that nuclear weapons can be used pre-emptively – that is to say, he’s apparently completely forgotten the sole purpose and only justification for such weapons: that they sustain peace by producing an unbreakable stalemate between the superpowers because of the certainty of MAD if there were to be a nuclear exchange. That is, for those who have forgotten: Mutually Assured Destruction. Not just complete devastation but intense radiation that leaves any ‘conquered’ terrain completely uninhabitable for many decades. In effect, multiple massive explosions with an almost inconceivable blast combined with chemical and germ warfare. 

‘And all over that sandland, a fall of slowly 
raining broad flakes of fire showered steadily.’ Dante Inferno XIV: 28-29. Engraving by Gustav Doré

Yes, we in Britain (as in the States) are living in a completely MAD world this evening that may just get even madder on Friday.

That is to say, May might get even madder. Practically everything she says, if it’s not the opposite of the truth, is more or less complete nonsense.

She is particularly given to speaking in tautologies, such as ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ Now we have ‘Enough is enough’ in regards to the way we’ve been tackling terrorism recently (almost as if the Opposition have had something to do with it); but, as about half a million people immediately tweeted, she seemed to forget that before she became PM she was the Home Secretary for six years.

So, what I hope she means is ‘I’m sure you’ve had enough of the way I’ve been doing things for the last seven years.’

She’s clearly barking MAD as well weak and unstable. Actually, the people of Barking (a safe Labour seat and home of the wonderful Summer Olympics in 2012) will no doubt be sane enough to vote against her on Thursday.

The Tory Manifesto is a very odd concoction (unfortunately no room to go into here). Its very title – ‘Forward, Together’ (with that very strange comma) is the opposite of the truth: this government with its lunatic Brexit policy has divided the country as never before, and most sane economists and derided experts think it’s a very backward step indeed.

The Labour Manifesto, by contrast, seems an altogether shrewder document, and has at least the perfect slogan: ‘For the many, not the few’.

“Watch where you step!
 Be careful that you do not kick the heads
 of this brotherhood of miserable souls.” Dante, Inferno XXXII: 19-21. Engraving by Gustav Doré

Unfortunately, I fear many of the electorate are still intending to go sleepwalking along with the hubristic Mrs May on her callous, retrogressive path of crass populism.

On the other hand, I don’t think that many are at all impressed by her leadership, and it’s just possible that she will get the bloody nose of a hung parliament that she so richly deserves.

Lucifer cast down, engraving by Gustave Doré for Milton’s Paradise Lost


* From Dante’s Paradiso, XXX, lines 40-42. The full, beautiful tercet, which sums up what Dante finds at the very end of his long quest in the Divine Comedy – amounting almost to a creed for every artist – is:

luce intellettüal, piena d’amore;
amor di vero ben, pien di letizia;
letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.

light intellectual, full of love;
love of true good, full of ecstasy:
ecstasy that transcends all sweetness.


Newsflash, Friday 8 June, 2017. 

I’ll have to confess that when I wrote the above blog on Wednesday I had absolutely no idea that my words would be quite so prescient. This morning I’m certainly experiencing ‘letizia che trascende ogni dolzore’. It surpasses any recent mere ‘hope’ that I may have had.

All Gustave Doré engravings: Wikimedia Commons

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