Brexit – going backwards with climate change deniers

The horrendous prospect of a minority Conservative government in Britain relying on the sectarian Democratic Unionists (DUP) in Northern Ireland to back a clumsy and contorted exit from the European Union and to remain in power despite having lost a misjudged general election has revived some memories of my exit from the dis-United Kingdom at the beginning of the 1980s. How can the Conservatives guide the people into a brighter future when they depend on support in parliament from a bunch of ”no-surrender”, anti-abortionist, climate change deniers whose fear of a united Ireland kept the green isle locked in misery for much of the 20th Century? The Good Friday agreement and the “farewell to arms” since the mid-1990s seem to be hanging in the balance as the Tory leader Ms. Mayhem continues blundering. Somebody needs to teach her about the ugliness and stupidity of fundamentalist sects, although judging from her performance during the last year there’s not much scope for deepening her understanding of any such issues. Her sound-bites have been something like: Let’s have a “hard” Brexit, by setting up barriers with our main trading partners – including the Republic of Ireland believe it or not – by sending Johnny foreigner back where he belongs and by assuming that Johnny consumer at the far end of the earth is eagerly awaiting the signature of new trade deals (with an ex-imperial power now relegated to mini-nation status…)[1]

I lived in Belfast for a year at the end of the 1970s and learnt a little about the tangled history of the 32 counties and “Anglo-Irish” relations. At that time Ian Paisley’s DUP was a forum for anger and fear, not to mention bigotry and backwardness. I had little sympathy for the ”men of terror” on both sides of the sectarian divide and despaired of any chance of peaceful solutions to a conflict, which had divided and polarised people for hundreds of years. Northern Ireland (Ulster) often seemed to be stuck in a time warp of religious mistrust belonging to the 16th and 17th centuries (”pre-enlightenment”) rather than the 20th. It was only in the wake of significant economic progress in the Irish Republic – within the European Union – from the mid-1980s that the warring factions discovered the advantages of peace and prosperity.

After the limited success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, during the 1970s the violence of the Irish republican army (IRA) was confronted with the full force of repressive rule, from the massacre of innocents in Derry on Bloody Sunday, to internment without trial, the daily routines of surveillance by the British Army and humiliation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Frustrated by the pervasive sectarianism, I found out that a year in such an environment was more than enough. It was a great relief to move on to London (1980) and then Antwerp (1981), where people of different ”races, colours and creeds” seemed to be capable of co-existing without hatred and violence.

Subsequently I have realised that the DUP and similar movements in numerous other countries are dangerously effective in preventing people from breaking out of blinkered beliefs and by obstructing policies designed for “the common good.” By appealing to the basest instincts of tribalism and by distorting ideas and information with narratives of manifest destiny (“greatness”) and antagonism to other traditions, customs and practices, the outside world becomes a threat and “the other” an enemy. The solution to the challenges of co-existence is found in building walls and keeping guns at the ready, or in the imperial dreams of reactionaries who like nothing better than to bomb far away places about which we know little…

But then again, given the narrow-minded nostalgia that led British Conservatives (and unionists) down the Brexit pathway, perhaps the DUP are ideal partners in a project that seeks to go backwards as fast as possible while completely ignoring the urgency of measures to promote low carbon economic development in Europe (and elsewhere). Thus, it looks as if the Tories and the DUP are firmly on the side of aging crackpots like Trumped Up and the US Republicans in their increasingly desperate attempts to destroy the planet for future generations.[2]

May their miserable projects fail as fast as possible! I’m raising my glass to the worldwide revival of progressive forces… Sláinte!

[1] The letter sent by Ms. Maybe to the European Council in March 2017 invoking article 50 of the EU treaty and initiating negotiations to leave the Union was a bizarre summary of contradictory aspirations. The main message was that the UK government would seek good relations with the EU as a sovereign non-member. But the letter almost read like an application for membership in terms of emphasising the need for stable international security arrangements – to deal with the Russian threat, an age-old British bugbear – for favourable trade deals (to counter US protectionism), etc. etc. The Tories appear to have become experts in delusion, confusion and bad governance, though of course these have always been dominant characteristics of the British elite!

[2] John Oliver’s assessment of the US Government decision to withdraw from the UNFCCC Paris Agreement is worth 20 minutes of viewing time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5scez5dqtAc It seems that the Canadian activist and writer Naomi Klein is publishing a new call to action, pinning her hopes on progressives and environmentalists able to defeat the self-serving, greedy, fear mongers who have taken over in Ankara, Moscow, Washington and elsewhere. She concludes a recent interview by pointing out that the US President may be an idiot, ”but don’t underestimate how good he is at that!” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/11/naomi-klein-donald-trump-no-is-not-enough-interview

 

June 1967 – two memories

Most of my memories of the 1960s are hazy; I was only 14 when the decade ended and the turbulence of teenage bliss and neurosis was still ahead of me. Nonetheless, there are a couple of events that have etched images on the storage cells in my brain. Not surprisingly, given the progression over the intervening 50 years, my memories combine fun and fear…

The Beatles released their magnum opus ”Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June 1967 and in the same month the Israeli army defeated the combined Arab forces in the six-day war. These two largely unrelated happenings had significant impacts on world music and on geo-politics. I was conscious of both, but too young to articulate an understanding of what was going on at the time.

Sergeant Pepper’s is often voted as the best popular music album ever. The reason is straightforward enough: the Fab Four wrote good songs with catchy melodies and the record was produced by George Martin who understood the possibilities of using classical music arrangements and instruments to underpin the psychedelic and social themes being explored by the lads from Liverpool. I remember being very disappointed that I hadn’t seen the band on stage in 1966 when they performed in Cambridge. But I was exhilarated by their music, which seemed to be pushing us all beyond rebellious youth towards a swirling drug-induced alternative. As a ten year old I had no hands-on experience of the scenes evoked by the music, but I was aware that some boundaries were being crossed.

The Israeli army crossed boundaries too and their rapid victories in Jerusalem, in Sinai and on the West Bank of the Jordan River created the traumatic stalemate that persists in the occupied territories fifty years later. I was watching TV news about the Beatles on tour, while other reporters were covering the expansion of US operations in Viet Nam. Suddenly the focus shifted to airplanes and tanks in the desert and to the one-eyed commander Moshe Dayan, directing the action. My parents reckoned that the end of the world was nigh. But with the hindsight of history we know that the Israelis wielding high-tech American weapons easily outgunned the Arab armies with their Russian equipment. The military industrial complex was on a roll in the sixties.

In some ways I think that much of the planet has been under the influence of June 1967 ever since. The Beatles showed the way to musical fun and games, while the culture of mass entertainment was born, aided by television and by global distribution of key artefacts like colourful costumes and memorable tunes. The Israeli soldiers demonstrated the power of purpose in the cause of destruction and domination (or survival…). Since 1948 the Palestinians have been unable to prevent the loss of their lands to heavily armed settlers, despite the resolutions passed by the United Nations. The joys of psychedelic musing and hippy happiness in the 1960s have been thoroughly undermined by injustice and the fear of military might.

Such contrasts! John, Paul, George and Ringo were transcendentalists and dreamers, floating off into the sky with diamonds.[1] On the other hand, haunted by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Europe, the Israelis have been obsessed with the primitive impulses of blood and land, building defensive walls as their best option.[2]

I don’t own a copy of Sergeant Pepper’s, but I have heard many of the songs hundreds of times. As my musical interests expanded over the years I tended to leave The Beatles behind, but for my generation they’ll always be “the greatest!” My caravan has never been to Israel or Palestine, but I am acutely conscious of the unresolved conflict and the hatred and mistrust in the region. Perhaps a peaceful solution can be negotiated, although superhuman reserves of tolerance and respect are required, both of which are in short supply. I’m not optimistic.

”And life flows on, within you and without you…”

[1] Although their roots were on Merseyside, as citizens of nowhere – to coin a phrase – the Beatles wandered backwards and forwards across the Atlantic and ventured to Asia in search of spiritual inspiration. George Harrison raised funds for famine relief at the 1971 concert for Bangladesh and ten years later John Lennon was shot outside his home in New York City. Despite the outlandish absurdity, the bed-in for peace protest in Amsterdam with Yoko Ono was another highlight of the sixties!

[2] As the historian Ilan Pappe noted in 2013: ”the idea of Israel symbolizes, for an ever-growing number of people, oppression, dispossession, colonisation and ethnic cleansing, while on the other hand an ever-diminishing number of people string the same ideas and events into a story of redemption, heroism and historical justice. Along the continuum between these two extremes lie innumerable graduations of strongly held opinion.”

Time to declare a global state of emergency?

At the heart of the natural sciences is the uncertainty principle, which defines the limitations of knowledge about physical phenomena. The principle states that the position and the velocity of an object (a particle) cannot both be measured at the same time, even in theory…

Determining probabilities, risks and likelihoods is the generally accepted means of overcoming the difficulties of precision, which is exactly what the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does in reporting on measurements of global warming and indicating scenarios for the future. Thus, recent studies of the disappearing ice sheet in the Arctic use time series observations of the extent of the ice cover, the thickness of the ice in different seasons and so on, in order to determine scenarios for the future, thereby predicting within a range of possibilities when there will be no ice left. But although the exact consequences of this dramatic change are unknown, there is consensus that significant disruption in terms of weather patterns, further warming and rising sea levels are likely outcomes. There’ll probably be no polar bears either…

Economists and political scientists are also studying the problem of climate change. In addition to calculating the costs of action and inaction, there is much debate about appropriate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the possibilities of enhanced ”resilience”, i.e. people’s abilities to cope with the changes in temperature, altered rainfall patterns, storms, floods, etc. But social scientists have also been examining the apparently ubiquitous problem associated with climate change: denial, i.e. refusal to accept that it is happening at all. Variations on this theme also include shifting the blame for pollution of the atmosphere to anything ranging from sunspots, god’s will or the Chinese…

Information about the effects of higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been available for a long time. There is nothing new under the sun! In the 1987 ”Brundtland” report to the United Nations on the prospects for sustainable development – Our Common Future – it was noted that catastrophic climate change must be considered a ”plausible and serious probability.” The World Commission chaired by the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, then asked the key question: ”how much certainty should governments require before agreeing any action?”

Fast-forward another 20 odd years to an issue of the American magazine National Geographic published in 2008 in which visible signs of global warming, the scientific evidence and a range of solutions were outlined. Noting that the environment “needs all the help it can get”, the editors of this special report lamented the slow movers in powerful positions in Washington, while enthusing about progress on clean energy, etc. at city and state levels. The target is “weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil…” they concluded.

Finally, after numerous stops and starts in international negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a comprehensive global agreement was signed in Paris in 2015. Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the Convention, there are no legally binding greenhouse gas emissions targets in the agreement, but almost all governments signed up for making “nationally determined contributions” that it is hoped will solve the problem (cutting emissions). For once it appeared that the urgency of the matter had penetrated through the fog of opposition that has been generated by those who pretend that no scientific consensus has been reached.

At least until the arrival of Mr. Trumpet and his squad of “business leaders” who have taken over the White House following the disastrous American election in November 2016. The United States looks increasingly like a banana republic, led by bigots and charlatans. Not content to preach the sermon of extreme avarice to the citizens of the richest nation on the planet and one of the most destructive in terms of carbon, the stupidity of the latest President stretches to undermining the 30 or so years of painstaking progress to reach agreement on how to tackle the problem of climate change. In other words, under the influence of get-rich-quick wheelers and dealers representing a tiny elite of super-consumers, Mr. Trumped Up has turned to the favourite retreat of those opposed to climate change: denial.

Given the information emerging from scientific investigations and the observations of the multiple impacts of global warming, it doesn’t take much intelligence to realise that drastic actions are required. But it seems that politicians must be forced into much harsher discomfort zones before any measures will be taken. Some argue that a global state of emergency needs to be declared. Sadly, such a call for renewed efforts to cut emissions and prepare adaptation measures is likely to be ignored by the greedy and stupid so-called leaders who have taken over the asylum.

Artists, beaches and cars in Jutland, April 2017

The struggle with words continues. I have made several attempts to write notes on recent events – notably the strong man tactics being used by President Erdogan in Turkey to consolidate his power – but I haven’t been satisfied with the results. My arguments are either confused or banal. I don’t find it easy to get to the heart of the matter. Maybe I’m just overwhelmed – one of my favourite words – by the ugly manifestations of stupidity and prejudice that seem to characterise both economic policies and international relations. With the Brexiteers blundering in a fog of little Englishness and the USA in the hands of a mob of dangerous goofs, it is quite difficult to analyse “the way forward.” As an observer recently pointed out: what is going on when the choice (for French voters in the presidential election) is between a banker and a fascist!?

So it seems to make more sense to reflect on the beauty of nature and to indulge in the drama of exploration. Lene and I had some days doing just that when we returned to northern Jutland for a long weekend. But even in the ”stress free zone” of our hotel, the real world was hard to shut out.

IMG_2670We did our best in conducive surroundings. The northern town of Skagen is famous for a short-lived artistic movement at the end of 19th Century, when a group of painters got together in the remote fishing village and produced a series of pictures depicting the lives of the people and the light in the region. There’s a very good museum where many of their works can be found, ranging from fisherman’s faces to carefully drawn interiors and colourful gardens. I’m a fan of P. S. Krøyer in particular; his painting of two women walking on the beach at Skagen on a summer evening is a blue haze of beauty and dreams.

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The top of Denmark – as the tourist operators call the region – has some wild and spectacular scenery, not least the endless beaches. In the course of 48 hours we managed to reach the spit of land where the Kattegat meets the Skagerrak, stroll around shifting sand dunes that have buried a church and race along the breezy beach in the chilly early morning close to our hotel. Sometimes the beaches seem a bit bleak, but the big skies and the gentle roar of the waves are fantastic.

IMG_2676A curious phenomenon in the region is that cars are driven on beaches. We battled with the motorways of Jutland to get to and from Skagen, realising once again that the Danish countryside, infrastructure and townscapes have been shaped by the power of the “motorist’s lobby.” The provision of space for parking cars has transformed many towns and cities. But why people have been given the right to drive on beaches is a bit beyond me…

Meanwhile, elsewhere

Having finished trawling through my travel notes from the past 13-14 years and before moving on to describe recent scenes and reflect on the strangeness of the world anno 2017, I would like to quote from two quietly impressive pieces of writing that I have come across this year. The first is from a collection of essays around the theme of public libraries by Ali Smith (2015). It is the sort of rant that I appreciate!

“Elsewhere there are no mobile phones. Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful. Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours a day. Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny. Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you. Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim? Elsewhere there are no religions. Elsewhere there are no borders. Elsewhere nobody is refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government. Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody. Elsewhere there are no preconceptions. Elsewhere all wrongs are righted. Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us. Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable. Elsewhere the words of politicians are known for their wisdom. Elsewhere history has been kind. Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty. Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shape-shifting formations that astound the eye. Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment. Elsewhere we do time differently.”

The second quote is from a 2009 essay on darkness and the writings of Virginia Woolf, in which the American writer Rebecca Solnit reflects on the ”tyranny of the quantifiable.” This is ”partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in the revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters. The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favour of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the uncertain.”

Although the caravan has travelled far, there’s still a long way to go… Re-reading these passages I wonder if I’m a bit stuck with John Lennon, but what the hell. All power to the imagination!

Glasgow, Edinburgh and some Scottish islands (2016 and earlier memories)

In December 2016 Lene and I went to Scotland for the first time for many, many years: an opportunity to check out my roots! We stayed with my aunt for a couple of nights on Clyde-side and then we rented a smart apartment close to the centre of Edinburgh for another three nights. I was happy to travel by bus and train from the airport through Glasgow – both the centre and the suburbs – catching a few glimpses of the city named on my birth certificate. Even better were the days exploring Princes Street and the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, where we admired the towers and walls of the castle from the Grassmarket, the snazzy Scottish Parliament, a fine collection of paintings in the Scottish National Gallery and the elegant streets of the New Town draped in Christmas decorations. We also found some very good eateries where we enjoyed several meals with pasta, fish, falafels and haggis! If the French, Italian and Turkish delights on offer are any indication, then Scotland is squarely in the European mainstream.

Edinburgh Castle rises above the Grassmarket, a steep climb

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Adam Smith with a seagull on his head – Royal Mile

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We went to Scotland more or less at the same time as I completed a very long essay on “islands I have known and loved.” The following are my notes on four Scottish islands.

Arran

In my childhood and particularly before we moved south across the border in 1961, the Clyde valley west of the city of Glasgow was an important reference in my map of the world. We often stayed with my grandparents in Johnstone – a weaving town some 30 kilometers from Glasgow – and they would often head down to the coast for holidays and day trips. They particularly liked to go to the little seaside resort of Largs, from which Great Cumbrae and the Isle of Bute are short ferry rides across the Firth of Clyde. More exotic and slightly further, on clear days the peak of Goat Fell on the island of Arran is also visible.

As far as I can remember, my childhood passed without an opportunity to travel to Arran. My parents (at least my father…) much preferred to go to Iona (see below). Then to my great satisfaction, when I was studying geography at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology in the early 1970s, the teachers decided that all we needed to know could be discovered on a field trip to the island. So we stayed for a week at a hostel and zoomed around with maps and binoculars and anoraks, estimating altitudes, reviewing ordinance survey symbols and gazing at the wild beauty of the fells. It was a long trip from Cambridge to Arran, but it was worth it!

Iona – my first island

At this stage I’ll go back to the beginning to describe Iona, which I guess was the first island that appeared on my mental map sometime towards the end of the 1950s. My father was a member of an organisation called the Iona Community, which drew inspiration from the works of an Irish monk Columba, a missionary on the west coast of Scotland. He established a religious order and was based on Iona until his death in 597. The distinctive Celtic cross spread as Columba’s monks converted heathens across Scotland. Many of the early Scottish kings including Macbeth are buried on Iona.[1]

The Iona Community appealed to my father as a Christian movement for social justice and peace. It was founded by a Glasgow cleric called George Macleod in the 1930s; dividing his time between social work in the city and worship on the island using the abbey as a retreat and spiritual centre. My father was a member of the Community all his life.

We went to Iona many times during my childhood. Sometimes we sailed from Oban around the much larger island of Mull (see below) and sometimes we drove across Mull to the little harbour of Fionnphort where tiny open boats operated the ferry service. There were no cars on Iona. The island is only about 5 km from north to south and about 2 km wide.

My memories of the ships and boats around Iona are mixed. I remember that we had to climb down the side of the steamer from Oban into smaller boats to be ferried to the jetty. It wasn’t easy in the swaying sea. The sailors sometimes teased kids like me. I remember being very frightened once that we would be left behind when the boats sailed back to Iona after an excursion along the coast of Mull. I guess I was only about 5 or 6 years old. I wonder how my nervous mother coped with the stresses and strains of sea going adventures and the good Christian souls who belonged to the Community. I guess the answer is that she didn’t…

Mull

Since my childhood trips to Iona I have been to Mull twice. In 1995 we went to Scotland for a holiday during a heat wave and sailed from Oban to Craignure for a day trip to see the castle and the miniature railway. It was an enjoyable outing as far as I remember, not least seeing the mountains and the lochs in bright sunshine, a rarity in the north of Scotland. 13 years later I went for a more typical wet and windy excursion. Martin and I had travelled by car to the Ardnamurchan peninsula for a short holiday in 2008. The weather was disappointing, so we hopped on a ferry and went to Tobermory, the largest settlement on Mull. But the rain didn’t let up, so after slouching around the town, we went for soggy walk in a park and then headed back across the sound to our B&B.

Sometimes I think that boats are close to my heart. However, I have not been much of boatman; I have never owned any vessel and have not made any special effort to go sailing. Perhaps there’s some regret in these words, in the same way as I sometimes wish I had disciplined myself to learn a musical instrument. But the sea is also a bit scary…

As a child I was always happy to be entertained by my aunt and uncle; they owned a yacht and often went sailing in the Firth of Clyde. Their lifestyle contrasted considerably with that of my parents and there were enormous pleasures in being taken for excursions “on the ocean wave”, even just for a few hours. After my uncle died my aunt became a keen world cruiser.

Skye – which Union?

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing… over the sea to Skye…[2]

Which I did, once, back in the early 1970s, when I was a keen highland walker. The island is now linked to the mainland by a bridge, but back then there were ferries. Unfortunately I wasn’t equipped for climbing in the spectacular Cuillin Mountains, where the weather conditions are often dangerous. I think I vowed to return for a more thorough exploration, but I haven’t. The island points tantalizingly north westwards towards the Outer Hebrides, which I haven’t visited either.

I was in the Netherlands in 2014 when the Scottish held a referendum on independence and the majority voted to stay in the United Kingdom. Sitting in a café by a canal in Amsterdam I met a group of four Scottish women, two of whom were “better together” and had voted for the Union, while two had voted against. It seems that the campaign had been an interesting opportunity for the Scots to debate desirable economic and social policies in an independent country, in contrast to the moribund, minimalist political debate that seems to characterise many countries.

Maybe after the Brexit referendum the Scots will get another chance to vote for independence from the UK. Given that almost two thirds voted to remain in the EU, the first minister in the Edinburgh parliament, Nicola Sturgeon, has been negotiating with both London and Brussels to find a way forward within a Union, which may mean leaving the UK. We’ll see in the next year or two I suppose.

[1] As summarised on www.ionahistory.org.uk: Iona is one of Scotland’s smallest inhabited islands. Yet its historical significance is enormous. It was here that St. Columba founded his monastery, a major influence in the spread of Christianity. Viking raiders ransacked the monastery around AD 800, but Iona’s role as a beacon of faith was never extinguished. An abbey and nunnery were established here around 1200 and the island was a focus for medieval pilgrimage. Iona’s spiritual importance endures, enhanced by the foundation of the Iona Community in 1938.

[2] This song refers to Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (31 December 1720 – 31 January 1788), commonly known in Britain during his lifetime as The Young Pretender and The Young Chevalier, and often known in retrospective accounts as Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was the second Jacobite pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland, France and Ireland (as Charles III) from the death of his father in 1766. This claim was as the eldest son of James Francis Edward Stuart, himself the son of James VII and II. Charles is perhaps best known as the instigator of the unsuccessful Jacobite uprising of 1745, in which he led an insurrection to restore his family to the throne of Great Britain, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Culloden that effectively ended the Jacobite cause. Jacobites supported the Stuart claim due to hopes for religious toleration for Roman Catholics and a belief in the divine right of kings. Charles’s flight from Scotland after the uprising has rendered him a romantic figure of heroic failure in some later representations. In 1759 he was involved in a French plan to invade Britain which was abandoned following British naval victories.

Breakfast in Dubrovnik at sixty (2016)

In October 2016 I turned sixty. We went on holiday in and around Dubrovnik, a beautiful and popular destination on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Before taking a taxi to the airport and heading back to Copenhagen to celebrate together with our kids in the evening, we went downtown for a special breakfast. We had found that good deals were available on the terrace of the old Arsenal building overlooking one of the city’s many squares, so we settled in for morning coffee, croissants and eggs.

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Dubrovnik was an Adriatic city-state for many centuries, rivalling Venice to the north. Next to the Arsenal is the Rector’s Palace, which was the seat of the government. It seems that the Rector (or mayor) was kept from abuse of power by a strict rotation system: he (there was no she…) was only one month in the job! The motto obliti privatorium, publica curate (forget private affairs, take care of the public) is carved above the doors of the palace.

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We had an enjoyable stay in the city, renting an apartment in a suburb called Lapad with a fine view of a bay, a beach and a wooded hillside. Although we had thought that we’d be going there out of season, it turned out that tourism is booming more or less all year round in Dubrovnik and the recent unrest in Turkey has been a boon for Croatian resorts. There were many thousands of visitors thronging the narrow streets of the old town. I was glad that we decided on an early start on the day we walked the city walls, thereby avoiding the crush. At one corner we haggled for handicrafts with a friendly woman with a stall on the wall!

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The complex history of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic involves numerous waves of settlers, soldiers and sailors. The Greeks explored northwards in ancient times and the Romans built palaces. The Ottomans advanced through the Balkans in the 16th Century after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the end of Byzantium. Under Ottoman control, the traders of Dubrovnik soon expanded their business throughout the empire and the Mediterranean, operating over 180 ships from the city. There’s a fine maritime museum close to the harbour in Dubrovnik, stuffed with exhibits demonstrating the seafaring skills of the people.

Modern Croats seem surprisingly keen to ensure that visitors are aware of the destructive impact of the more recent conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia, not least the evil deeds of the Serbian forces in the 1990s. This is done by displaying huge placards at the entrances to the old town which show the buildings damaged in bombardments: December 1991 was a particularly severe month. Although over twenty years have passed since the disintegration of the federation, the wounds appear not to have healed…