That air of innocence...
I have just read sadly of the death of the artist and illustrator, Ronald Searle. The obituaries testify to a long, rich and prolific life that also included the horrors of war and the Burmese death railway (I have a book of his sketches, secretly done at the time, of that ghastly experience). Forget St Trinians; my older brother and I were weaned on a series of essential books for schoolboys in the early 1960s – the wonderful 1066 and All That, and Down With Skool!: A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and Their Parents; How to be Topp: A Guide to Sukcess for Tiny Pupils, Including All There is to Kno About Space; Whizz for Atomms: A Guide to Survival in the 20th Century for Fellow Pupils, their Doting Maters, Pompous Paters and Any Others who are Interested; and Back in the Jug Agane, the last four all written by Geoffrey Willans and all brilliantly illustrated by Searle. They described a world that was still, just, relevant to us. There were still china inkpots in the schooldesks, though I only remember filling them once. When they and quill pens and blotters went, so did the warfare of inkblots (rolled-up bits of blotting paper, soaked in ink) launched with wooden rulers (another disappeared species). Gaze at Searle’s noble Nigel Molesworth in the illustration, ‘the curse of St Custard’s’ and the ‘gorila of 3b’ and reflect solemnly on his observation that, ‘as any fule kno’; ‘History started badly and hav been geting steadily worse.’
Today, our last day in Italy, we explored the northern bank of the floodplain at the mouth of the Adda river, agricultural land that also serves as a nature reserve. Shortly after we had set off we spotted an oval shape high in the sky over the northern Alps. Having the binoculars with us for the birds, we checked the shape out and realised that it was a hot air balloon. Back home, I did some research on the internet and found that there are several companies offering such trips. Now that must be an extraordinary experience! The websites make it seem a banal affair but the internet also tells me that the very first hot air balloon flight over the Alps occurred as recently as 21 August 1972, piloted by Donald A. Cameron. (You can read his account of the adventure here). The balloon that flew over us was far too high to photograph so I am posting a picture of me looking suitably pensive instead.
From one populist hero to another; today I at long last watched Kusturica’s biopic of arguably the world’s greatest ever footballer, Diego Maradona (with apologies and thanks to E for the loan!). Kusturica clearly idolized Maradona but his somewhat self-indulgent documentary is far from being a hagiography. To understand Maradona’s modest origins is to understand why he is so venerated by the Argentine and Neapolitan working classes and also, I suspect, explains his friendships with Castro and Chavez. One of the most touching moments in the film is when Maradona goes back, for the first time in fifteen years, to the tiny south Buenos Aires shantytown house where he grew up. In the voiceover commentary Kusturica theorises that Maradona doesn’t like being reminded of the grim reality for many of his impoverished compatriots. But the images come to life when Maradona’s eyes light up as he shows the tiny courtyard where he played football ‘day and night’ (clearly where he developed the skill to play in small spaces while tightly marked) and the wall against which he endlessly headed the ball. The light fades a little as he remembers his exhausted father, a porter, encouraging his children to walk on his back as a sort of primitive massage…
I am reading a wonderful account of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s extraordinarily rich life. The biography, by Alfonso Scirocco, was very generously given to me as a present by his nephew, who carries the same name and is a colleague in the EESC. In England, every village has an ‘Elizabeth I slept here’ panel. In Italy, its Garibaldi. His name is everywhere. And now I understand why; he got just about everywhere! I knew about his exploits in Latin America but confess I never knew he stayed in New York or that he was accorded a hero’s welcome in Newcastle. What I had also forgotten was that Garibaldi, like Mazzini, was a European patriot, supporting the creation of a European federation. They believed that a unified Germany could play a leadership role in that context. I am closing this post with an extract from a 10 April 1865 letter Garibaldi wrote to the German revolutionary Karl Blind which, it seems to me, has some uncanny echoes for the present day:
‘The progress of humanity seems to have come to a halt, and you with your superior intelligence will know why. The reason is that the world lacks a nation which possesses true leadership. Such leadership, of course, is required not to dominate other peoples, but to lead them along the path of duty, to lead them toward the brotherhood of nations where all the barriers erected by egoism will be destroyed. We need the kind of leadership which, in the true tradition of medieval chivalry, would devote itself to redressing wrongs, supporting the weak, sacrificing momentary gains and material advantage for the much finer and more satisfying achievement of relieving the suffering of our fellow men. We need a nation courageous enough to give us a lead in this direction. It would rally to its cause all those who are suffering wrong or who aspire to a better life, and all those who are now enduring foreign oppression.
‘This role of world leadership, left vacant as things are today, might well be occupied by the German nation. You Germans, with your grave and philosophic character, might well be the ones who could win the confidence of others and guarantee the future stability of the international community. Let us hope, then, that you can use your energy to overcome your moth-eaten thirty tyrants of the various German states. Let us hope that in the center of Europe you can then make a unified nation out of your fifty millions. All the rest of us would eagerly and joyfully follow you.’
We are holidaying for a few days in a spectacularly beautiful part of Northern Italy. As the photograph shows, even walking the dog this afternoon treated us to wonderful views out over the Lago di Como and the beginnings of the Valtellina. An important year lies ahead, with Presidential elections in France (April/May) and the US (November), the Rio+20 UN Conference on sustainable development in June and a new Treaty to be negotiated and signed for the eurozone (March?). Still closer to home, the EESC’s President, Staffan Nilsson, will begin the second half of his mandate in February. There is still much to be done. But when I am up in the mountains, following ancient paths and gazing down over ancient settlements, I get a sense of timelessness.