Quote of The Week

“The consolation of imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.”

Roger Scruton


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Cold

Despite the promise of global warming we still have to suffer through winter every year. There’s something quite scary about a long spell of cold weather. It’s a harsh reminder that we are living on a slightly warm ball of rock in the middle of an infinite space where the temperature is around minus two hundred and fifty degrees centigrade, just a few clicks of the thermostat above absolute zero. It felt close to absolute zero here the other day when I was outside scraping ice off the car. The cold began to seep into me and I thought: a person could die in this, and of course people do.

Some years ago we were living in a small house on Long Island during just such a freezing spell when the heating failed completely. We called the repairman, but so had everyone else. The house just got colder, and colder, and colder. There was no fireplace, and we had no electric heaters. We huddled under blankets with the cat, suddenly as vulnerable as homeless people – except that we had a car outside, and could go somewhere safe if things got really bad. How fragile our comfortable lives can be! One faulty machine, one over-stressed system, and nature reclaims her territory and her temperature.

Human civilization began in warm, welcoming places. What madness brought us to this unpredictable latitude, where just dealing with the weather takes up so much time and money? We spend months in summer trying to stay cool at enormous expense, and waste months in winter dealing with and paying for snow and ice. Even now I can hear the furnace down in the basement, slurping oil like an elephant at a water hole. Hundreds of thousands of other furnaces on Long Island and in Connecticut and all over the northern part of the country are gulping oil just as greedily. Perhaps invading Iraq wasn’t such a bad move after all. We need every drop of oil under the surface of the planet, just to keep warm and keep driving.

The Pilgrim Fathers understood their mistake soon as they landed at Plymouth Rock. Half of them died during their first winter in New England. But they stubbornly refused to make the obvious decision and head back to the temperate climate of Old England. Surely any amount of religious persecution would have been better than this annual meteorological persecution? Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean that we should, any more than “All you can eat” equates with “All you should eat.” Somewhere between the possibility and the decision, common sense should intervene. It’s significant that, when people grow old and acquire wisdom, they immediately move to Florida.

Those of us who remain in the northeast are the true inheritors of the stubborn Puritan tradition that allowed these bleak latitudes to be populated in the first place. Humans are fond of inhabiting places unfit for habitation. Las Vegas, for example, is about as sustainable in the long run as a base camp on Mars. It’s one of the strongest arguments I know against human rationality. Would rational creatures live in Maine or Alaska or the Scottish Hebrides? They would not. A truly rational race of creatures would confine its activities between latitudes 30 North and 30 South, and leave the rest of the earth to animals with thick fur, cross-country skiers, and heating oil salesmen.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Spoilt for Choice

On December 20 there weren’t many signs of Christmas in Aniane, the small French village where we were living. The town hall had been decorated with a few colored lights, and Madame Lilli had put cards and a few seasonal objects in the window of her boutique. But that was about it. No houses were visibly decorated, no stores were playing Christmas carols over loudspeakers. In this, as in other things, the inhabitants of Aniane seemed disinclined to go over the top.

After the hysterical intensity of the holiday season in America, this relaxed attitude was something of a relief. But it did make us rather nervous. It was like driving with someone going at a hundred miles an hour, with just one finger on the steering wheel. After all, The holidays were coming. They could not be stopped. Preparations had to be made, vast amounts of money had to be spent very quickly, credit cards had to be run up to the limit. Yet here were these French people, on December 20, strolling around, chatting and casually shopping for bread and onions, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. In the nearby city of Montpellier the first Christmas decorations had appeared on December 15, allowing a generous ten days for holiday madness. On Long Island you’re not surprised to see them in August.

My theory is that this is because of the French Revolution. In 1792 the revolutionaries, hoping to erase memories of the old regime, introduced an entirely new calendar, with new names for the months and new festivals. Christmas was not included, and Christmas shopping was therefore eliminated. I don’t think the French have ever forgotten what a glorious relief this was. Ever since Christmas is restored to their calendar by Napoleon in 1806, they have been rather half-hearted about it.

Christmas shopping in Aniane was not easy. The small stores in the village didn’t offer much in the way of gifts unless you wanted to give bread, meat, or vegetables. Shopping in the city would be an admission of defeat. The closest thing we had to a general store was Monsieur Vidal’s strange establishment, hidden at the end of a blind alley. Whatever you might want, Monsieur Vidal was likely to have at least one: one 60 watt light bulb, one ironing board, one straw Panama hat, one packet of floppy disks, and so on. If, by an unlucky chance, an earlier customer had bought the particular item you needed he would go out at lunchtime in his old Peugeot and buy it for you at the supermarket in the next town. That’s service. It was also ecologically friendly. One car trip by Monsieur Vidal saved a dozen trips by his customers.

Naturally, his selection was limited. What you saw was what you got. There was no point in fussing over color or style or even condition. I almost bought his one Panama hat, in spite of the fact that it had obviously been on the shelf beside the rabbit food for years, was covered with a thick layer of dust, and was several sizes too big.

In principle, I love this kind of retail establishment. When I shopped with Monsieur Vidal I escaped from the tyranny of choice. Too much choice makes me dizzy. But, at this time of year, with a list of gifts to buy, I had to admit that no choice at all was not enough. Monsieur Vidal had apparently added nothing to his stock for the holiday season, except one incongruous plastic beach ball. There were a few dusty ornaments and some old toys in faded cardboard boxes. But essentially all the same stuff was in the same places, with the cat sleeping undisturbed on a heap of shoeboxes. With the best will in the world, it was hard to get into the holiday shopping mood there. The consumerist impulse died when confronted with Monsieur Vidal’s stock.

There was only one solution: everyone on our list, including children and teetotalers, would get a bottle of wine this year. After all, we were in France, which produces thirty thousand different wines. Aniane alone had six vineyards offering two-dozen varieties, from the suspiciously cheap to the most outrageously expensive. When it came to Holiday shopping, we were positively spoilt for choice.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Disappearing Act

In spite of Covid, or perhaps because of it, our neighborhood seems to be emptying out again as our local climate refugees head south for the sunshine. If they’re not gone already they will be on their way in the next few days. Costa Rica seems to be popular this year, and the Bahamas of course, and even good old Florida although Florida has had terrible weather so far. Whatever fresh horrors winter has in store for us in the northeast a lot of our neighbors prefer not to share the experience.

Who can blame them? Well, I can for one. Those of us who are left behind, keeping an eye on empty houses and feeding abandoned cats, can’t help feeling a certain resentment as we check our generators, stock up with salt and shovels, and anticipate the discomforts and disruptions of the coming weeks. Why can’t we all go south? If a Mexican bandit can escape from a maximum-security prison twice, surely we can escape from a wide-open, frozen suburb? The grass is always greener on the other side, especially if it’s not buried in snow.

The desire to run away is particularly strong in January, but it persists at a low level all year. Escape, that’s what we all dream about. We want to vanish from here and re-appear somewhere else, painlessly, without explanations or apologies. About three-quarters of a million people go missing every year, and many of them are never found. They are probably all down in Costa Rica, soaking up the sunshine. But wherever they are some of them have certainly gone missing by choice. They walked away from their lives, felt the sunshine, purchased some lime green Bermuda shorts, changed their names, and vanished.

It’s the plot of a thousand novels. I was just reading one by the French writer Simenon, called The Flight of Monsieur Monde. The main character is a successful businessman with a family who, one wet, cold day in Paris, walks to his office and just keeps walking. He takes a train, to the south of course. I’ve never heard of anyone escaping to the north apart from a small sub-category of extreme masochists who go to Vermont in January. Down by the Mediterranean Monsieur Monde works in a casino and lives a completely different life for a few months before astonishing everybody by returning calmly to his home and office. He needed to escape for a while to preserve his sanity, and he did.

The sudden overwhelming desire to just go, to disappear, leave everything and start again sometimes hits people in the middle years of life when they look back, look ahead, and see more of the same. For me, it’s more a matter of the weather forecast. When the forecast says snow, it’s time to go, when the forecast says ice, even Florida sounds nice.

In the long run, Global Warming may save us from this annual torture, but it’s hard to be patient. I want to join the great exodus and go south right now. Within hours I could become a lounging, sun-loving climate exile with not a care in the world. Unfortunately this kind of escape, like a dramatic prison break, has a rather large price tag attached, and in any case I fear I may have left it too late. Costa Rica seems to be full.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Reinventing the Holidays

National Holidays make complete and perfect sense if you grew up with them, and no sense at all if you didn’t. It’s difficult for anyone not brought up in America to get excited about Thanksgiving, for example, and Americans find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for Bastille Day in France, Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, or the Foundation of the Workers’ Party Day in North Korea.

These special days make a tremendous impression on us in childhood. Everyone around us takes them so seriously that the public holidays seem like part of the fabric of the universe itself. They march us through the year as relentlessly as the seasons: Martin Luther King Day, President’s day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving – all commemorating some more or less mythical part of the national history. On these days we celebrate ourselves, and people like us.

But, for most people like us, it’s not the history lesson that counts but the extra day off. With the notable exception of Thanksgiving, these days are observed on Mondays regardless of the exact date they are meant to commemorate. This convenient fiction gives us a much-needed long weekend. The cunning placement of Thanksgiving on a Thursday allows us to steal four whole days. This adds up to seven official secular holidays a year, or eight if we include Christmas, which has become a kind of non-denominational winter solstice shopping ritual.

It’s not enough. Other nations have many more holidays. Russia has nine, France has thirteen and Japan has seventeen, not even counting religious festivals. Only Albania has fewer national holidays than the USA. As the world’s only superpower, we should surely have more long weekends than anyone else.

This is a political matter. Only Congress can declare National Holidays and they have fallen down on the job. We need at least – at the very least – one three day weekend per month. There’s a big gap in March and April, and nothing at all in June or in August. A few more long weekends would be good for our health and good for the tourist industry. It’s almost impossible to take a real break in two days.

We can’t even call some festivals by their proper names anymore. Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa are all lumped together under the meaningless title of “The Holidays,” so that nobody can possibly be offended by the suggestion that their particular celebration is not the most important day on the calendar. We don’t worry about the conservative sensibilities that may be bruised by Labor Day, for example, or about the feelings of British people on the Fourth of July.

We can’t change or move the religious festivals, too many delicate sensibilities are involved. But, if religious holidays are taboo, secular holidays can certainly be created. There are already plenty of special days that should be holidays but aren’t – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day are obvious choices. Tax day, April 15 should certainly be a National Holiday, we deserve it, and the holiday deficit in August could be nicely filled by upgrading National Relaxation Day, which falls on August 15. We deserve that too.

A few brand new holidays would also be refreshing, and I think that these should celebrate the genius of science and technology – the inventions that make life in the twenty-first century so much better than it ever was before. What about Central Heating Day, FM Radio Day, Personal Computer Day (perhaps not), Medical Anesthesia Day, Dishwasher Day, Prozac Day? If all these days are made into official national holidays, this will give us thirteen long weekends in the year. It’s still not enough, but it would be an improvement.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Modestine Forbids

The international tourist industry offers many pre-packaged cultural experiences. Some of these experiences are more strenuous than others, and therefore easier to resist. For example, if you drive through a range of gentle mountains in southern France called the Cévennes, you will be astonished at the number of places that offer donkey rides. This is not just a piece of fun. It is all the fault of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who is best remembered for those splendid adventure stories Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and for the dark, Freudian fantasy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was also a fine travel writer, and in 1878 he took an eleven-day hike through these very hills with an obstinate donkey called Modestine. The result was a charming little book called Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, which I discovered and loved when I was about twelve years old.

Stevenson’s book has created a whole donkey trek industry. Many tourists in these mountains actually do hire donkeys in order to relive his experience properly. Little groups can be seen setting off into the woods, the donkeys loaded down with camping equipment and food for the journey. The opinions of the donkeys about this are not recorded. But much as I like donkeys I didn’t want to ride one for eleven days, and nor did my wife. So we followed Stevenson’s route by car, reliving his experience as it were on fast forward in a single day.

This, of course, was nothing but self-delusion. Stevenson and Modestine walked a total distance of about a hundred and twenty miles. They were often lost, often misdirected by peasants, and they slept in horrible inns without cable TV or hot water. Sometimes they were forced to camp in the open, in the rain. Stevenson had plenty of time to think. Indeed, he traveled alone quite deliberately, so that he could think.

His was a type of journey almost forgotten: a philosophical journey. His mental companions were writers like Laurence Sterne, William Hazlitt and Henry David Thoreau. Not many tourists in the Cévennes today carry this kind of intellectual baggage. Stevenson was fascinated by the geography of the region, by the aesthetic quality of the landscape, and also by the religious character of the people who lived there. This was and is the heartland of French Protestantism, so its history interested the Scottish author very much. The light relief in the book is provided by the difficult personality of the donkey Modestine, their joint misadventures, and the people they met along the way.

Stevenson wrote: “I travel not to arrive at any particular place, but for the simple pleasure of traveling.” This meditative experience is precisely what we modern tourists miss. When you are going at hundred kilometers an hour on mountain roads and surrounded by French drivers, any form of meditation or even thought would be suicidal. So although we followed Stevenson’s route, and saw the same villages and landscapes that he saw more than a century ago, I can’t pretend that we had any deep philosophical experiences as a result. But I’m glad we did it. We saved ten whole days on the journey, the scenery was incomparable, I re-read Stevenson’s book with new understanding and respect, and best of all no donkeys were inconvenienced in the course of researching this essay.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Charity Begins Chez Nous

While living in Paris we learned a lot about garbage. You escape this knowledge when you stay in a hotel, but having an apartment meant that we had to conform to a whole ritual of disposal and recycling. Each apartment block had a set of strict rules about the separation of garbage categories, pick-up dates, and so on. The soundtrack of our lives was the crash of bottles being dropped into the glass container, and the big bins rumbling out to the curb to meet their carefully scheduled date with destiny and then rumbling back again.

We owe all this sanitary activity to a famous Frenchman, Monsieur Eugène-René Poubelle who, in 1870, became Prefect of Paris. His self-appointed mission was to clean up the filthy city, which he achieved in 1884 by requiring every household to have a special container for garbage, which was then emptied at regular intervals by carts that traveled around the city, announcing their arrival by blasts on a hunting horn. Et voila, Paris was cleaned up, and M.Poubelle became a kind of hero. To this very day the noble garbage can is known, in French, as la poubelle. There’s fame for you.

All this is very fine and should make us feel good, except that when the big garbage bins were rolled out to the street poor and homeless people appeared from nowhere and started digging in the garbage for any usable or edible items it might contain. This is not what we wanted to see in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

In December the spirit of charity should be active, even if it lies dormant from January to November. There are a lot of poor and homeless people in Paris. In January, a couple of blocks from where we were staying, hundreds of middle-class Parisians moved into tents along the Canal Saint-Martin as a protest in support of the homeless. There are plans to do the same every year.

Paris was full of pathetic beggars, many of them old women, squatting in doorways, or on the cold pavements. You couldn’t get on the Metro without being serenaded by a beggar of the musical kind. The street musicians of Paris have gone downhill in recent years. Sometimes you would hear a really talented violinist or saxophone player, obviously trained at the conservatoire. But many had nothing more than a portable CD player, or a Karaoke machine. But there they were, it seemed in every subway car, in your face with their paper cup and their sad cry for help.

Guilt: it’s hard to escape it. In hard times we should be twice as charitable. But if I had given one Euro coin to every beggar and street musician I encountered on a typical day it would have added up to at least twenty Euros (say $25), or more than a hundred and fifty dollars a week not counting Sundays, which was beyond my charitable budget. On the other hand, my wife and I spent thirty-four Euros on two cups of coffee and two slices of apple tart in a café near L’Opèra: guilt.

The tourists and the more affluent citizens of Paris didn’t seem to notice the recession. The streets around the famous stores were almost too crowded to move. The most expensive hotels and restaurants were full. Guilt, like its great interpreter Sigmund Freud, is not fashionable in haute bourgeoisie France, it’s not chic, and to be unfashionable is to be invisible. The poor are always with us, but they have no style, which in this most stylish of cities, is the ultimate misfortune.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Plato at the Polling Booth


“We can no longer endure our vices, nor
the remedies for them.”

Livy

Democracy is a glorious idea. The notion of free citizens governing themselves by electing the best and the brightest people among them as representatives is one of the best notions that the human race has ever produced. It’s a pity that the results are so often disappointing – especially that the chosen representatives so seldom appear to be the best and the brightest. “Politics is the art of running the circus from inside the monkey cage,” wrote H.L.Mencken, and a lot of voters agree.

Public cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all-time high. About half of all citizens just don’t bother to vote. Democracy, as Winston Churchill remarked, is the best of bad choices among systems of government. But the problems are huge, and not just the obvious problems of campaign contributions, and influence, and two almost identical parties.

That’s the problem with democracy; we do it to ourselves, so can hardly blame anyone else. Democracy is a fine idea. The system of free citizens governing themselves by electing the best and the brightest people among them as representatives is one of the only good political notions that the human race has ever had. It’s a pity that the results are so often disappointing, and especially that the chosen representatives so seldom appear to be the best and the brightest, let alone the noblest and honest of citizens.
Plato always elbows into this argument. He suggested one big problem two and a half thousand years ago when he labeled democracy as “Rule by the appetites.” He wasn’t talking about fast food, although he might have been. Plato argued that democracy gives us so many choices that the system inevitably drifts towards mediocrity, instability, paralysis, decadence and chaos.

Plato’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the first principle of democracy is freedom so that, in a democracy, anything that limits personal freedom is resented. Nobody likes restrictions, and nobody loves authority. For that reason, nobody wants to exercise authority either. Politicians pander to popular whims, teachers are scared of their pupils, and parents become like children themselves to avoid the responsibility for disciplining their offspring. Democracy creates the feeling that nobody’s in charge, or that everybody’s in charge. Either way, each one of us is on his or her own, at the center of the universe. Nobody else matters much. There are so many conflicting demands that the system just cannot deal with them. Nobody can clearly tell right from wrong or can even admit that there are such things. All standards are progressively abolished in the name of freedom. Random violence occurs but, because freedom is so important, nothing much can be done about it. Citizens become disillusioned with politics, and stop participating. Eventually, democracy falls apart.

Some modern theorists argue that he was completely wrong and that we have far too little freedom in our democracy, being oppressed by millions of laws and regulations, taxes and government bureaucracies. This is encouraging. When two groups of experts disagree so profoundly, we can assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
But if we are living in Plato’s last stage of democracy, the age of appetites, there is some good news. Plato gave it as his opinion that this is the most enjoyable time to be alive, simply because we have so much personal freedom. The main thing is to save our fragile system from moving on to the next stage of the cycle, which is the age of tyranny.

Of course, Plato was an ancient Greek with authoritarian instincts who lived in the very first age of democracy, which didn’t last long. In terms of his own chaotic era and the Athenian political system, he was proved to be absolutely right. His case against democracy, in a nutshell, was that we citizens are just not capable of governing ourselves. We are too greedy and selfish, and not very smart, and we choose representatives just like us. So (said Plato) a few superior people must take on the difficult task of governing the rest. Plato’s Republic was based on totalitarian rule by wise philosopher-kings who governed for the common good.

The idea of philosopher-kings makes us smile, especially now. Imagine a society run by the philosophy department at your local university and you might want to laugh out loud. But forget the antique language and think about the central idea: those who govern should be the most intelligent and the most honest people who can be found.

I thought about this while we were having breakfast at the top of the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. This offers an almost godlike view of the city, overlooking the Charles River towards the noble buildings of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What a concentration of brainpower there must be in that couple of square miles. If only all that trained intelligence could be harnessed to solving the problems of the world, we would surely be on our way to utopia. The only problem I can see is that people with all these qualities would not want to be politicians at any price.

It’s pure Platonic fantasy, of course. But consider that every responsible profession except politics demands rigorous training, an examination of competence, and a code of ethics. Politicians need no qualifications: they get into power simply by making themselves popular, and that was Plato’s whole complaint about democracy.

But tweak the system just a little, and the problem might vanish. We should require a few appropriate qualifications for political office. These are some of the best jobs in the world, with by far the best lifetime benefits. Surely, at the very minimum, those who govern a society of three hundred million people, with global power, should have excellent educational backgrounds? Not professors, heaven forbid, but men and women with enough intelligence and training to understand the economic and social sciences, to know at least something about the physical sciences, and (perhaps most important) to understand history. They should also be acquainted with at least a couple of foreign languages. It’s a complicated world out there.
This would reduce the field of candidates by about ninety per-cent, and it should be further refined by a few basic psychological tests. Many responsible jobs use testing to weed out unstable and unsuitable applicants, and the tests much more sophisticated than they used to be. They can measure aptitudes like teamwork, honesty, psychological stability, and commitment to higher goals of the institution (in this case The Constitution).

After their educational backgrounds had been checked, and their psychological testing completed, the highly qualified candidates could go forward to the election, with their educational achievements and psychological test scores posted on the polling machines for all to see.

One final thing: I’m sorry about this, but the money will have to go. The Supreme Court decision of 2010 essentially sold the US government to the corporations and the oligarchs. The old joke about “The Best Congress that Money Can Buy” became a stark reality. If politics was actually about the polity (citizens) instead of money, then a very different group of people would want to participate in it, and these might be the people we need.

Frankly I think this is a brilliant idea, worthy of Plato himself. All we have to do is persuade the next democratically elected Congress to pass it into law.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Trick of Treat?

Only five-year-olds and witches really enjoy Halloween. The build-up is long and tedious, and the event itself is short and nasty. This year, the first Halloween candy and decorations appeared in our local supermarket right after Labor Day. Since the beginning of October, the quiet highways of Long Island’s north fork featured full-scale Los Angeles-style traffic jams every weekend. Pumpkin madness has struck again. Thousands of cars head east towards the great orange fields of U-Pick pumpkins, which mysteriously appeared overnight. I never saw them growing there during August and September, so I assume that they are flown in fully grown from some place like Guatemala, and arranged in the fields under cover of darkness.

I don’t care for the look of Halloween. Normally staid suburban homes break out in an ugly rash of skeletons, skulls, vampires, artificial cobwebs floating ghosts, and hanging corpses. Plastic gravestones sprout in front yards, as if whole families had settled their differences once and for all. Every old barn and warehouse becomes a “haunted house” full of dime-store costumes and cheap sound effects.

Whichever way you look at it Halloween is a very, very strange event. The encyclopedia says that it is an old Druidic ritual, but I don’t know any Druids around here. They must be hiding behind those masks. Two thousand years ago, back in the old country, before they all migrated to Long Island, the Druids used to celebrate Halloween as the day of Saman, Lord of Death.

This may have been all very well back in the Celtic twilight of the late Iron Age, before the Plastic Age. But it seems hardly appropriate in the twenty-first century when we are all so rational and sophisticated. Yet when October comes around everyone – or almost everyone – jumps to attention and plays his or her part in this theater of the absurd like members of a well-drilled circus team.

There’s enough material in Halloween for a thousand conferences and a million PhDs in psychology. What dark, repressed Freudian secrets do we see here, suddenly displayed outside ordinary suburban homes – literally skeletons out of the closet?

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. This is a permissive age, and children, as well as adults, are allowed to do or say just about anything. The only remaining taboos are those that come under the general heading of political incorrectness. The modern version of Halloween is an exuberant festival of political incorrectness, the one day in the year when no cows are sacred. American witches have often complained about the bad image they get at this time of year. (They should have been around in Massachusetts in 1692 when they would really have had something to complain about). But every minority suffers at Halloween: short people, ugly people, crazy people, aliens, transvestites, people of color (any color – green, orange, purple), and above all dead people. They all become victims of this wild effusion of political incorrectness on All Hallow’s Eve.

The British, like other Europeans, have been persuaded to give Halloween a try, thus vastly inflating the profits of those who make orange and black plastic, bite-sized candy, and dental equipment. I’ll be interested to see how they handle it – but I can guess. All the treats and most of the tricks will be liquid in nature, political incorrectness will rise to new heights, and children will definitely not be encouraged to take part. When grownups in England discover something really silly, they like to keep it to themselves.

Copyright: David Bochier

A Festival of Pottery

Summer 2019 marks our tenth Bastille Day in this village. The name – Saint Quentin la Poterie – means that it is full of ceramic artists. There are about twenty workshops, most with retail shops attached, and July 14 brings the European pottery festival called Terralha. Every open space, courtyard and basement is pressed into service to display the works of professional or semi-professional potters, who have been selected by the “Cultural Office” for this honor and sales opportunity. There is even a potter, Karen, in the vaulted space under our house, which used to accommodate farm animals. Karen is German and speaks only a little unsteady English. Her pottery is also unsteady but quite attractive, with strange, organic shapes suggesting something between internal organs and tortellini. Her husband is Italian and speaks no French or English, so we have not been able to get to know them very well

We are conscientious. On the first day of the festival, we walk around the village and view all twenty displays, some of them with incredulity. It is astonishing to see what wierd things that people can do with lumps of clay. Even stranger are the descriptions, couched in high-flown artistic language that I cannot reproduce. Even some black, shapeless lumps like coal had several hundred words of interpretation, suggesting that they were metaphors of subterranean darkness. There’s nothing to be said about this curious form of intellectual exhibitionism that has not already been said by Tom Wolfe in his witty and erudite book The Painted Word.

“Antoine Murine interrogates the rural or urban landscape where the human hand had marked its passage. It is this trace that he collects, fixes and organizes in these are clay blocks formed with delicacy. In these blocks, the gesture of the artist is retained. It immobilizes the state of the materials by a ceramic firing. Sometimes the clay is socialized in the hands of the potter who gives it volume as a possible elegant container. In these interventions and installations, M. Murine exposes the tangible presence of human actions on nature. He illuminates in a new way a discrete and essential matter: the earth that our feet tread.” (my translation, with apologies).

What more can one say about square lumps of clay?

The village feels unfamiliar during this festival. It is packed with tourists, wearing the very strange clothes that tourists do wear when they feel that vacation somehow makes them invisible. Young girls take advantage of the hot weather to show themselves practically naked, giving the old stone buildings the air of a background for a burlesque show. I’m not complaining, but sometimes I wonder how their parents feel about this juvenile erotic display.

The tourists make me sad. They look so dutifully at the “sights” and take hundreds of photographs, and usually look sad themselves, forcing smiles only for the selfies. It’s the same everywhere from Paris to the smallest English village – all of them (and us) seeing the same things and taking the identical pictures, yet all atomized and separated, with every image and experience disconnected from every other. How many pictures are there of the Eiffel Tower (an ugly object, in my opinion), and what does it mean that the number is probably in the trillions?

From: A Journal of the Eightieth Year(2020) Copyright David Bouchier

The Theater of War

We were driving through southern England on our way to yet another airport when we left the main highway and plunged into the country lanes in search of a place to have lunch. Actually, not much searching was involved, because we already knew where to find the best lunch in the area. We stopped as usual in the village of Ockham, at a pub called the Black Swan, which rather perversely has a white swan on its sign, and is known locally as The Dirty Duck.

As we stepped out of the car we were greeted by the unmistakable sound of gunfire, which is not usual in English villages, even in these exciting times. Two groups of men were lined up on opposite sides of the field behind the pub, loosing off volleys of rifle fire at each other. At first, we thought it was one of those village disputes about fox hunting, or who grew the biggest marrow for the agricultural show, that had just got out of hand. But, when we moved out of the line of fire and took a closer look, it was clear that the combatants were wearing old-fashioned uniforms, and the flat popping sound of their muskets suggested that they were firing blanks.

It was my wife who, having the benefit of a good American education, recognized the uniforms. We were looking at a re-enactment of a battle from the Civil War. We heard rather feeble rebel yells and shouted orders as the two sides marched and counter-marched across the field. The uniforms and equipment looked quite genuine, and perhaps the action was too. For example, many of the Confederates were in the pub drinking beer during the battle which, if it’s an authentic re-enactment of those events, may explain the débacle at Appomattox in 1865.

What confounded me completely was the fact that a bunch of Englishmen (and some women) chose to re-enact the American civil war in an English field behind an English pub. England had a perfectly good Civil War of its own in the 1640s – lots of slaughter, many atrocities, nice costumes, great fun. Other important battles were fought close to this very place, including one against the invading French in 1066, which the English lost for once. Why not re-enact that one, and perhaps change the ending?

Nursing my pint among the boisterous Confederate troops, I reflected that geographical anachronism was only half the puzzle. I can see the attraction of re-creating a slice of history. It’s theatrical, it’s educational, and it must be fun. But why choose the most dismal, nasty, and brutal moments of the past? Why not re-enact peace?

I know, peace is dull, and war is exciting and even romantic – but only if you choose your war, and your battle I don’t see anyone re-enacting the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War, for example, or the collapse of the Maginot Line. How about a re-enactment of some of the great moments in intellectual history – the Lincoln/Douglass debates, for example, or the debate over the Bill of Rights. That would really be educational.

I wish history enthusiasts would choose to re-enact our moments of collective sanity, instead of our (alas) much more frequent moments of madness. But I’m not holding my breath.

Copyright: David Bouchier