Return to Prague, October 2019

My first trip to Prague was in 1977, when I was twenty years old. For some reason or other I had gotten interested in finding out what was going on behind the iron curtain which firmly divided Europe in those days. Perhaps it was curiosity about what had happened after the Russians invaded in 1968 and put a stop to Alexander Dubcek’s reforms, attempting to ”build socialism with a human face.” Perhaps I had heard about the Charter 77 movement and the rapidly suppressed protests associated with writers and musicians such as Vaclav Havel and the Plastic People of the Universe. Anyway, I packed my bag and travelled east in the summer.

Memories of days spent exploring the city are very dim, but I do recall that it was a surprise to be in an advert-free environment, where Coca Cola signs and suchlike were replaced with huge red and gold banners proclaiming the triumphs of socialism. The city seemed to be full of construction sites, worn out facades and scaffolding. There were very few cars and almost no tourists. Compulsory daily currency exchange meant that it was quite expensive to travel in the ČSSR even though the cost of living was low. I stayed in very simple dormitory style accommodation. After two or three days in the city I moved on to the Bohemian countryside and spent two weeks with an international voluntary work group, doing some minor nature conservation work in the parks and gardens of a small town called Čimelice. The Czechs and Slovaks I met seemed friendly but cautious. It was unusual for them to interact with people from the West, just as it was strange for us to be face to face with our Cold War enemies!

I returned twice in the following years. In November 1978 I spent another two or three days in the dark and gloomy winter city before heading north to Berlin. In 1981 I was an official guest of the national youth organisation and spent several days with an international work group at Prague Zoo. The Commission for Cooperation with Youth Movements in Socialist Countries (CCYMSC) arranged the youth exchange programmes, under the auspices of the peace movement I was involved in called Service Civil International. We weren’t communists, but aimed to promote understanding between young people around the globe! In the 1980s the odds were against us as the numbers of missiles in Europe steadily increased; but finally the East Germans got fed up with the Stasi (secret police) and the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight – financial and human cost – of military misadventure in Afghanistan… The Cold War ended in a victory for capitalism and liberal multi-party, democracies!

Meanwhile I had settled in Denmark and become father of two. A year or so after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 we took our kids for summer holidays in the ČSSR, not long before the amicable split leading to the (re) creation of the Czech and Slovak Republics. A stopover to explore the squares and riverbanks of central Prague was followed by a week in a farm cottage not far from the Polish border. We drove via Berlin in order to get an impression of the changes after the fall of the wall. By that time Vaclav Havel had been propelled from being an imprisoned and then silenced dissident to becoming President of the new Republic.

Prague was already showing signs of becoming a boomtown. The Communist Party banners had disappeared and the tour operators were moving in. A big clean up was underway too, which has culminated in the transformation of the central zones of the city into architectural showcases for Gothic, Baroque, Art Nouveau and Modernist styles. A couple of pictures from my recent visit – attending an international evaluators conference held in a dull suburban hotel – provide glimpses of the fascinating urban landscapes and artefacts in the city.

IMG_3852View across the Vltava River towards Hradčany and the Cathedral of St. Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert (1344)

IMG_3854The old town hall building with the medieval astronomical clock (1338)

I’ll wind up with some notes on food! Close to my hotel in Prague I found the Bella Restaurace, where I sampled the specialities and then wrote the following review published on Trip Adviser:

42 years ago I visited Bohemia for the first time, stayed in a largish village and got to know the basics of Czech cuisine, including dumplings, grilled meat, pickled veggies and cabbage, etc. not to mention pilsner beer! There was a very down to earth pub in the village where we gathered in the evenings. Thus, it was a big surprise to find a similar pub in the Strižkov district of Prague during my recent stay at the Duo Hotel for a conference. I felt as if I had been whisked back to the 1970s. The Bella serves Czech classic dishes in rather non-descript surroundings dominated by low-grade apartment buildings and suburban traffic. I ate a goulash dish with two sorts of dumplings, sitting in a slightly gloomy upstairs room with a view towards the nearest housing block. It’s a far cry from the flashy restaurants of the downtown district. But I really enjoyed the meal, the staff was friendly and I returned to the hotel as darkness fell with a smile on my face, feeling as if I had revisited a scene from my youth!

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A wicked problem: climate change

Vaguely aware of global warming back at the end of the 1980s thanks to the Bundtland report on ”our common future”, it was only after observing – from a safe distance on the other side of the Atlantic – the chaos in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrine in 2005 and after reading the key messages of the Stern report published in 2006, that my focus sharpened.[1] Since then I have been actively engaged in various projects and programmes associated with climate change, both in terms of mitigation (aimed at reducing emissions) and adaptation (increasing resilience). In the spring of 2007 I immersed myself in the subject by joining a professional development course at Imperial College in London at which a host of highly qualified experts lectured on the many dimensions of the world’s wickedest problem.

Subsequently, I was responsible for ”screening” Danish development assistance in 17 different countries between 2006 and 2009 in order to determine how climate change could be taken on board and taken seriously in providing aid. These studies came up with lots of proposals for helping to understand the impact of global warming on communities in each country as well as proposals for policies and measures that might help them to adapt. I joined the teams developing the ideas in Cambodia, Central America, Niger and Zambia and I was also involved in monitoring a large-scale ”adaptation and mitigation” scheme in Viet Nam. By 2010 I had become fairly familiar with the enormous difficulties of transforming development pathways in sustainable, low carbon and resilient directions…

For a few years I was also able to participate in decision-making processes with the multilateral development banks when “climate change investment plans” were drawn up and approved. I attended meetings in such exotic locations as Istanbul, Manila and Washington, listening to planners and advisers outlining how to scale up renewable energy, to invest in forest management and to enhance resilience. These opportunities bought me into the sphere of the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation (which became known as REDD+). After negotiators at the conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached agreement on a series of REDD+ provisions, three agencies of the UN (FAO, UNDP and UNEP) joined forces to provide technical assistance as part of the global effort to improve forest conservation and management. I worked as an adviser to the UN REDD+ programme for two years, based in Geneva from 2014 to 2016, responsible for preparing a strategy to assist national efforts in tropical developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation.

In September this year it was fascinating to read a special edition of the Economist magazine with updates on the wicked problem. There are articles about the struggle to phase out coal production and introduce clean energy (wind and solar power, etc.) in Germany, in Britain (with Danish investors) and in China. There’s an analysis of the prospects for a ”green new deal” being promoted by many Democrats in the USA. The magazine’s journalists have visited southern Italy where a destructive bacteria is spreading rapidly through olive plantations aided by warmer temperatures, as well as South East Asia where forest fires are once again getting out of control and pouring hazy smoke into the atmosphere. They have written accounts of the recurrent droughts affecting some of the world’s poorest farming communities in Malawi as well as the reduced rainfall disrupting shipping through the Panama Canal as water levels in the locks fall below critical levels. The fate of coastal Asian mega-cities is illustrated in a report from Jakarta, which is slowly sinking under the weight of roads and buildings at the same time as the sea level rises. Finally, there is an article about negotiating strategies adopted by the members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which are particularly threatened by climate change.[2]

If the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s main message is understood, then the key to solving the wicked problem is to listen to science and act accordingly. However, as she knows, there are massive vested interests at stake, notably amongst the shareholders and bosses of the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations.[3] Furthermore, the lifestyle changes required to reduce emissions significantly in the next few years in order to avoid going beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of temperature increase since the 19th Century, are… significant. Energy, transport, production, consumption, construction and waste disposal models will have to be substantially reformed, for example by scaling up wind and solar power, by using electric vehicles, by capturing CO2 emissions from industrial processes, by cutting back on meat in diets, by re-thinking urban design and by expanding recycling in “circular economies”, etc., etc. In this context, I’ll conclude on an upbeat note, quoting Kate Raworth’s exciting proposals for “doughnut economics” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) in which she (sets out):

“an optimistic vision of humanity’s common future: a global economy that creates a thriving balance thanks to its distributive and regenerative design. Such an aspiration may seem foolish, even naïve, given the intertwined crises of climate change, violent conflict, forced migration, widening inequalities, rising xenophobia and endemic financial instability that we face… But there are enough people who still see the alternative… Ours is the first generation to deeply understand the damage we have been doing to our planetary household and probably the last generation with the chance to do something transformative about it. And we know full well as an international community that we have the technology, know-how and financial means to end extreme poverty in all of its forms should we collectively choose to make that happen…” (p. 243).

PS These thoughts are in honour of the gathering of mayors from the C40 group of big city “climate change shakers and movers” in Copenhagen in October 2019. In the hope that they’ll make a difference, not just make speeches… Forward with the green cities movement!

[1] The ”Brundtland report” was the main result of the World Commission on Environment and Development, published as Our Common Future (WCED, 1987). The sustainable development concept was ”discovered” by the Commission. In 2006 the UK Government published the (Professor Nicholas) Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (CUP, 2006), which concluded that strong early action to mitigate climate change would be much better than incurring the much higher costs of inaction.

[2] See: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/09/19/the-climate-issue

[3] The ways in which these companies have been at the forefront of climate change denial, while their research and development people have been aware since the 1950s of the dangers of increasing concentrations of CO2 caused by fossil fuels, are dealt with in recent articles published in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions

Three memorable locations (September 2019)

Like many other European baby boomers growing up in the golden years from 1945 to 1975 I was lucky to find that the world was open for exploration as long as I had some funds in my pocket.[1] Even when traveling on a very limited budget in the 1970s I managed to find ways and means to get around, hitching lifts, staying in hostels and with friends, etc. I didn’t take many photographs in those days but I did get to some exotic destinations. In the 1980s Lene and I were keenly mobile, roaming from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas and assorted other locations… Then with our children Kathrine (born in 1987) and Martin (in 1990) we expanded our horizons from bases in Ouagadougou (1996-1997) and Managua (2002-05). The following are reflections on three very different memorable locations where my caravan has been.

First on my list is County Donegal, out there on the edge of Europe and deep in my sub-consciousness, with nothing but the sea and the sky beyond the beyond, facing westwards and towards the New World. At the end of the 1970s I joined several groups of young people from Belfast and Derry staying in County Donegal, when youth and peace organisations were looking for ways to bring people together ”across the sectarian divide.” There was a holiday center near a village called Naran, maintained through voluntary labour by mixed groups of Catholics and Protestants. Traveling to and from the coast was amongst the highlights of my life. The wild green hills and the windy beaches are… magic… what words can I use?

Some of the kids claimed that Derry is the centre of the universe! County Donegal has infinite qualities. There are few people. Most of the settlements are tiny and the roads are thin winding threads in an enormous patchwork of grassy slopes and rocky coastlines. The wind is always blowing and there are sea birds wailing overhead. Flocks of sheep and herds of cattle huddle behind stonewalls. Pubs are whitewashed cottages, where musicians often appear out of the blue with their fiddles and pipes. The towns and cities of Eire and the Six Counties seem far away and the border seems like a remnant of an idea that has gone out of fashion. I raise my glass to remoteness, the sound of waves and rain, small fishing boats moored in hidden harbours, to the light changing as clouds come and go, to fresh air and freedom of movement.

I drove to County Donegal from Belfast where I lived for a little more than a year. In those days there was a heavily policed border between the North and the Republic. Each little market town or village hosted a police station or an army barracks ringed with high barricades and barbed wire, the main border crossings were strictly controlled with car boot searches and questioning and the roads swarmed with soldiers on patrol setting up roadblocks and waving flashlights. Once I drove on the back roads from County Donegal, crossed the border near Derry and a few hours later was stopped at a checkpoint in downtown Belfast. “What were you doing in the border areas earlier today?” I was asked. The number plate of my vehicle had been photographed and entered into the police database. I was taken aback. Slowly we learned that Northern Ireland in the 1970s was a huge testing ground for the technology of surveillance.[2]

Before moving to Belfast at the end of 1978 I ventured towards the east of the continent a couple of times to learn a little about the iron curtain and the “people’s democracies.” Some stamps in an old passport bear witness to these trips, which included a stay in southern Bohemia and Prague as well as couple of journeys to Berlin. The Cold War was chilling in those days and travel in Czechoslovakia (CSSR) and East Germany (DDR) was a bit complicated, with currency exchange regulations, limited accommodation in mostly state-run hotels and heavily armed, suspicious border guards. There were few tourists and not many Czechs or East Germans who spoke English. Schoolchildren learnt Russian in order to strengthen fraternal relations eastwards.[3] Now neither country exists, the stamps are slightly faded reminders of states that mutated into other imagined communities and then merged into the entity known as the European Union.

The lasting impression etched into my memory files was a panoramic view of the wall winding through the middle of Berlin, the empty heart of the city. I was heading from the East into the West after a night journey from Prague. Walking from the Ostbahnhof, I drank morning coffee on the windswept Alexanderplatz and then took a suburban train stopping at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. The passengers entitled to transit descended below ground where papers were checked and stamped before returning to the station above. The train then undertook the one or two kilometre journey across no man’s land, a broad band cut through the city, devoid of buildings, but packed with brightly illuminated barbed wire and anti-tank barriers, trenches, walls and watchtowers. It was obviously high risk attempting to flee across such obstacles: in the 28 years from 1961 to 1989 over 200 escapees were killed.

Later this year Germans will celebrate the fall of the wall in November 1989. Almost 30 years have passed since reunification, but the divisions between East and West still shape political, social and economic agendas in the Federal Republic. The rise of anti-EU, anti-immigrant, proto-fascist movements has culminated in the emergence of the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) party, which mirrors similar tendencies in many other countries. Looking back on the post-Cold War period, I wonder where we have gone wrong in the efforts to heal divisions and build tolerant, progressive societies… Rising inequality is an obvious cause of unrest. But I hope the extremists can be kept on the margins of German and European policy-making.[4]

Further to the south and east is the Sinai Peninsular in Egypt, another memorable region. We’ve had some brief glimpses of the Arab world. In 1981 Lene and I met in Cairo to do the Nile valley shuffle by train and by boat as well as briefly and madly by cycling to the edge of the desert around the Pharaoh’s tombs at the Valley of Kings near Luxor. Then in 2001, a couple of months before some crazed Saudis hijacked aircraft on the east coast of the USA and plunged the world into an endless war of terror, we took our kids for a holiday at the Sharm el Sheikh resort on the Red Sea.

We had a fantastic time in the fierce midsummer heat. There were huge pools at our hotel, but also a shelving beach where we could snorkel and admire tropical fish. Martin was a little too young to learn diving – which he did during a holiday trip to Roatán in Honduras a few years later – but we swam a lot and discovered the sparkling beauty of coral.

During our two-week holiday we joined the crowds on buses for a trip to Mount Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery. It is very hot in Sinai during the summer and the sunrise over the mountains is a spectacular sight, so tourists are deposited at around 3 am at the bottom of a track winding upwards, climbing in the coolest hours of the night, towards dawn. At sunrise we were perched on some rocks not far from the summit, imagining Moses looking into the heavens and God’s hand reaching down to give him the commandments.[5]

As the sun rose we descended towards the Monastery. Through a gap in the slopes we could see the solid yellow-brown walls surrounding the chapels, refectories and libraries forming the ancient settlement. Slowly we proceeded down the mountain on a narrow footpath, finally emerging just outside the massive bulk of the building. Inside we were shown around the public spaces including the chapel of the burning bush, a collection of monk’s skulls and bones and some glimpses of the many treasured manuscripts kept in the Monastery.[6]

St. Catherine’s was fortified by the Emperor Justinian in 565 and is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The members of the religious order speak Greek. A peaceful oasis retreat in a wild desert landscape, it is an anomaly in a region torn apart by conflicts.

egypt-st-catherines-panorama-of-monastery

[1] French economists referred to high growth rates during ”les trentes glorieuses” (years) from 1946-75.

[2] Undermining the 1998 (“Good Friday”) peace agreement and threatening to re-establish border controls is probably the most scary and irresponsible outcome of the Brexiteer’s madness and their conquest of the Conservative and Unionist Party in the UK. After centuries of injustice English ruling class arrogance towards Ireland still knows no bounds. But the tables have been turned as the EU member states are backing the Irish government in efforts to prevent the return of a “hard” border across the island.

[3] In 1977 huge red banners hung in the streets of Prague with slogans like ”Se Sovetskym svazem az do vecnosti!” (with the Soviet Union until eternity!) Young Czechs told me that the students during the Prague spring in 1968 added a few more words: ”a ne o den vice!” (and not a day more!). Then the Russian tanks rolled in, but not for eternity…

[4] An easy to read introduction to the centuries old divisions of what was once known as the Holy Roman Empire was published a couple of years ago; check out the ”shortest history of Germany” by James Hawes (Old Street Publishing, 2017).

[5] For the full story, see Exodus, chapters 19 and 20 (e.g. in www.Bible.com)

[6] A thorough description of the Monastery is: http://www.sinaimonastery.com/index.php/en/

Unfreedom

During the summer holiday I read a book by Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder entitled “the Road to Unfreedom” (published by Tim Duggan Books in 2018). It is an intriguing if very depressing overview of the ways in which totalitarian political philosophies, failed governance, dreams of past imperial glory, the saturation of the media with lies and the dominance of powerful oligarchies (“crony capitalists”) have affected our societies in the last few years. The focus is on Russian machinations, initially through destabilisation of Ukraine, including annexation of the Crimea and low intensity, unacknowledged military intervention in Donetsk and elsewhere, followed by the dramatic surge of false information through the TV and social media in various European countries, as well as – since Don the Trumpet was bought out by Vlad Bootin and his cronies in 2013 – in the USA.

According to Professor Snyder a quasi-religious belief system emphasising Russian greatness, intense homophobia and imperial ambitions in Asia and Europe – establishing an empire which would stretch “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” – has been combined with highly effective use of the internet to spread distorted lies and inflammatory rumours with the aim of destroying trust in the rule of law and in science as well as in reporting on the truth. Fear and ferocious extermination were the main achievements of Stalinism, with countless millions dead in famines, in the gulag and in wars between the 1930s and the 1950s. The awful thing is that the entrenched occupants of the Kremlin don’t look back in horror at this period, but in admiration!

“The temptation the Russians offered Trump was the Presidency. The temptation Trump offered Republicans was that of a one-party state, government by rigged elections rather than by political competition, a racial oligarchy in which the task of leaders was to bring pain rather than prosperity, to emote for a tribe rather than perform for all. If all the federal government did was maximise inequality and suppress votes, at some point a line would be crossed. Americans, like Russians, would cease to believe in their own elections; then the United States, like the Russian Federation, would be in permanent succession crisis, with no legitimate way to choose leaders. This would be the triumph of Russian foreign policy of the 2010s; the export of Russia’s problems to its chosen adversaries, the normalisation of Russia’s syndromes by way of contagion” (p. 277).

If these scenarios are accurate, then we’re in for a bad time… Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has recently argued in The Atlantic magazine, that Trumped up has “defected to the other side” and that if he wins a second term in the 2020 election ”we can expect US withdrawal from NATO and a partnership with Russia to be on the table.”[1] The argument is echoed in ex-German foreign minister and Green Party member Joschka Fisher’s recent observations on ”two systems, one world”, contrasting the success of authoritarian rule in China with the weakness of pro-democracy movements in Russia, Hong Kong and elsewhere.[2] Dark ages, here we come!

[1] See: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/trump-defects-autocrats/596518/

[2] See: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/western-democracy-versus-chinese-model-by-joschka-fischer-2019-08

Pictures at exhibitions (August 2019)

During visits to museums and galleries in and around Stockholm in August 2019 we admired lots of fascinating sculptures and photographs. The vast collection of things from all over the planet on display at the Ethnographic Museum was particularly impressive. At Fotografiska we were lucky that our visit coincided with no less than five exhibitions, including a panorama of digitally generated, constantly moving images showing the historical changes in Stockholm’s buildings and landscapes. The following is a small selection of what we saw.

IMG_3745A sculpture in the park at Roddarhuset café in Vaxholm overlooking the archipelago

IMG_3773Some masks and a figure of a ploughman on display at the Ethnographic Museum

IMG_3775Brazilian police photographed confronting indigenous people claiming their land

IMG_3789Long live the motherland, a photo by Chen Man at the restaurant in Fotografiska

IMG_3787French actress and model Laeticia Casta, by Vincent Peters in the series Light Within

IMG_3791Pink in the Arabian desert, by Scarlett Hooft Graafland in the series Vanishing Traces

IMG_3788Bowler hats and candyfloss in the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia), in the series Vanishing Traces

IMG_3792Plastic waste (toys) floating near Hong Kong, by Mandy Barker in the Sea of Artifacts

Perhaps looking at pictures of people and places has become the best way to travel – in the mind – instead of booking flights or getting behind the wheel. Reading reviews of many popular attractions and interesting sites around the world suggests that they are so congested by mass tourism that they have become un-attractive and often more or less inaccessible unless you’re very keen on queues. But even though plastic waste is destroying life in the oceans and greenhouse gas emissions are steadily pushing the atmosphere towards the hothouse threshold, it is very hard to turn our backs on the tantalising goods and services provided by 21st Century capitalism, as mobile citizens of one of the wealthy regions of our little planet…

Under volcanoes

There’s an active volcano less than 25 kilometres from the house in Santa Domingo on the edge of Managua where we lived for three years (2002-05). It is called Masaya and inside a little national park there are expanses of rocky lava, which can be driven through almost to the crater. It’s possible to walk up to the edge and gaze down into a deep cavern from which a little sulphurous smoke emerges from time to time.

Shortly after we arrived in Managua we discovered that the mayor was concerned about accumulating rubbish. He proposed that the garbage disposal services could dump the city’s waste into the crater as a form of natural incineration. Happily the environmentalists disagreed! It was an uphill struggle to promote “eco-thinking” in Central America.[1]

On vacation in the shadow of Mount Etna on Sicilia, I thought back to our days in Managua, living close to the volcanoes. I also reminisced about our previous trip to Sicily in 1982, shortly before I moved to Denmark. In fact, the momentous decision to seek my fortune in Scandinavia was made during a short stay on one of the volcanic Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily, where Lene and I spent a few days hanging out on beaches admiring the smoky mist of the island called Stromboli – another of Europe’s active volcanoes – in the distance.

Central America is the eastern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an enormous geological formation characterised by instability. From the Andes to the Rockies, across the Aleutian Islands and southwards through Japan and the Philippines to Indonesia, the continental plates scrape against each other, the molten core of the planet bubbles to the surface, lava explodes from the cracks and there are numerous active volcanoes. There are also many earthquakes and sometimes tsunami, such as the devastating wave that destroyed the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi on Japan’s east coast in 2011.

The east coast of Sicily is dominated by Mount Etna, reaching 3350 metres into the sky. From the windows of the Airbus descending to Catania airport we could observe the cultivated slopes and the barren summit of the mountain. There are some small settlements at around 2500 metres, but throughout recorded history eruptions have led to lava flowing all the way to the Mediterranean, so the locals are very cautious. It is a bit surprising that thousands of people live and work in a series of coastal towns within a stone’s throw (sic) of the volcano.

Similarly, in Central America the volcanoes rise above gardens, forests, fields of pineapples, banana plantations and all manner of settlements: from the urban sprawls of Guatemala City and San Salvador to the historic towns of Leon and Granada, from San José the ugly capital of Costa Rica to Turrialba in the tropical rainforest, there’s a volcano nearby. We admired Mombotombo looming in the distance every morning as we drove the kids to school in Managua. At weekends we enjoyed trips to Las Isletas, rocky islands in the Lago de Nicaragua which are lava deposits blown from an eruption of Mombacho thousands of years ago. During a vacation in Antigua we strolled past colonial houses with their large courtyards under the vast shadow of Fuego (Fire), which regularly erupts pouring ash across the town.

Managua was more or less completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. The old city centre was largely abandoned and remains a semi-ghost town of ruins and empty plots, dotted with a few modern buildings that brave or foolish souls have put up in defiance of the seismic risks downtown. We lived far away and rarely ventured into “the zone.”

There was a taste of danger too on our return journey from Sicily in July 2019. When we were picked up for a shuttle service to Catania airport our driver informed us that Mount Etna had been rumbling so severely that air traffic had been disrupted during the morning. Indeed, there were large crowds waiting for a series of delayed departures. Happily it transpired that the quantities of volcanic ash and smoke were limited and after hanging around restlessly we were able to fly northwards some three hours behind schedule.

Beyond the volcanoes are the disruptions of the 21st century. Sicily is on the front line for “irregular migrants” crossing the Mediterranean with dreams of better lives. Similarly, many Central Americans are prepared to take great risks crossing violent Mexico to reach the US border. In both regions, the rich are busy building barriers in attempts to keep the poor away.

Sicily is much poorer than northern Italy and northern Europe. Unemployment rates are high. The Cosa Nostra apparently wields less influence than in the past, though drug trafficking is a serious problem. On a day trip to Catania we walked from the station to the city centre through a semi-wasteland of dilapidated buildings and desperados on street corners. A massive clean up effort is required to improve the urban environment, but people seem to prefer the individual pleasures of private consumption to improved public services.

Emigration has been a constant in the Sicilian world. Millions left in search of “el dorado” in the Americas in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. With roots in rural poverty Don Corleone is portrayed as a typical Sicilian in The Godfather. In the 21st Century lack of employment opportunities and widespread violence have encouraged an exodus from Central America too.

People living under the volcanoes seem to be strong believers in the power of god as well as nature.[2] In both Central America and Sicily the Catholic Church plays an important role. For example the born-again Christian President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega – an ex-revolutionary who has transitioned into a repressive thug – has introduced the world’s strictest anti-abortion legislation.

Widespread religious fervour was also easy to observe around the many churches in the town of Acireale on Sicily where we stayed during our vacation. It seemed as if every time we passed a church there was a wedding or another Catholic ritual underway inside. One evening some priests harangued a crowd gathered on the street outside a church near our hotel, before a spectacular firework show. Explosions in the sky seemed a slightly odd way to celebrate, only a few kilometres from Mount Etna…

IMG_3654A view of Mount Etna, smoking a little

[1] During our three years in Managua I worked on the design of a programme to fund conservation and environmental management in the region: Premaca (Programa de medio ambiente en Centroamérica).

[2] It is worth noting that volcanic eruptions on a large scale have caused periods of global cooling in the past, a “mini-ice age”, etc. The aerosol gasses from eruptions filter solar radiation and reduce surface temperatures. As efforts intensify to mitigate climate change, some geo-engineering freaks suggest controlled release of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere as a means of reversing global warming… but there are many unknown risks in playing like god with nature.

Words: uplifting or degrading

Oumou-Sangare

During the Copenhagen jazz festival in July we went to see Oumou Sangaré performing with her band at the Concert House. Oumou Sangaré is known as the diva of Malian music. She has a very strong voice and her songs reverberate with thoughts about love and its complications, often sung through dialogue with the other musicians on the stage while waving her arms and gesturing at the audience. It was a spectacular show; the kora player, the guitarist and the two accompanying dancers excelled and the sounds built to dramatic peaks of intensity.

I thought about words while she sang. Her lyrics are in Bambara, a West African language, interspersed with some French exclamations. It is perfectly possible to listen to the music and enjoy the instruments and voices while not understanding a single word.

The world is overflowing with words, in countless languages. Our little house is full of books and there’s always a pile of magazines in the corner. The papers I have drafted and edited over the years from a thesis to various reports and study notes are filed haphazardly. Like millions of people I have become semi-addicted to flows of information on my mobile ’phone.

One of the difficulties I encounter when trying to write is a fear that all the words are useless. Sometimes I’m concerned about overdosing on reading matter. I doubt the purpose of creating more texts although for 40-50 years I’ve been actively contributing to the surfeit. Like many others I am afflicted by a strong urge to capture my thoughts on digital ”paper”…

Perhaps singing is the answer! Our grandchild aged two and a half is an enthusiastic singer; doing his best to reproduce the pronunciation of the words he has learnt at the nursery and from his musical parents. A young child’s discovery of language is a wondrous process, an uplifting dimension of grand parenting!

We went to a concert with Oumou Sangaré around 22 years ago in the Maison du Peuple on the main avenue in Ouagadougou. I remember being blown away by the thunderous drums and soaring voices. We enjoyed many opportunities to hear West African music during our two years living in the city. But often we didn’t understand the words…

Repressive Saudi Arab ideology has permeated West Africa since the 1990s. The words of the holy Quran are used to spread hatred and mistrust around the region. Musical traditions have been attacked as “unclean” and musicians have been stoned and silenced. It is hard to comprehend the mentality of those who rage against the beauty of the kora and drums.

Something scary is happening to language in these dark times. Abuse, lies and distorted trashy stories spout from the twitter accounts of the powerful, debasing the currencies of communication until we are left with… hollow men, dead men, faint echoes of humanity…