Betwixt and between

Simurgh

East, West by Salman Rushdie.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

“East, West, home’s best.” — 19th-century proverb *

If one has a foot in two regions where then is home? In these nine short stories — three published for the first time in this collection — Salman Rushdie explores the disorientation that some experience when cultures collide.

These aren’t polemical essays, however, but character studies, thumbnail sketches which allow us insights into individual lives with all their comforts and dilemmas, and as such are a joy to read. They include vignettes, parodies, fables and mini-tragedies, each item with an independent life but all linked by themes, imagination and wit.

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Disintegration and deception

A Paris street in the 1930s

Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios
Introduction by Mark Mazower
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1939)

Charles Latimer is a full-time writer of what we might now called ‘cosies’, detective novels set in English country houses and the like, with lurid titles such as A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This. Having given up a post in academia to dedicate himself to his new métier he is travelling around Europe contemplating a new plot when he unexpectedly meets up with a fan in Istanbul.

It turns out Colonel Haki is a police inspector, who happens to mention that a body has just been retrieved from the Bosphorus, identified as a man called Dimitrios. Latimer is intrigued and, while surreptitiously investigating further, finds himself embroiled in a complex web of drug smuggling, human trafficking, political intrigue, financial corruption and murder. Too late he finds himself liable to become another murder victim as his amateur investigations take him around the Balkans and then back across the continent via Geneva to Paris.

Europe between the wars was volatile, to say the least. Whether on the margins — in Turkey, say, or Bulgaria — or nearer the west there was in the late 1930s an undercurrent of dark doings under the deceptively still surface of everyday affairs. That undertow had been evident for some time: in the third chapter, entitled 1922, Ambler actually gives a synopsis of the bloody events in Smyrna (modern Izmir) involving Turkish and Greek soldiers in massacres and reprisals. Out of this turmoil appeared the character known as Dimitrios. He left behind an interrupted trail of murder and assassination before the watery emergence of the body viewed by the Englishman on a Turkish mortuary slab in 1938. Latimer decides to try to fill in those gaps, seeking the dubious help of a Polish agent, a Danish colleague of Dimitrios and others whose affiliations should have put a more sensible man off the whole enterprise.

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Words matter

The goddess Ostara or Eostre by Johannes Gehrts (1884)

Happy Easter!

No, I’ve not gone all conventionally religious. You no doubt know that Easter wasn’t originally a Christian feast but a pagan one. Nearly a millennium and a half ago the Venerable Bede derived the Anglo-Saxon word for April — Eosturmonath or ‘Easter-month’ — from a celebration of the goddess Eostre, the latter probably an ancient divinity symbolising dawn and fertility and therefore extremely apt for the season. As are eggs, daffodils, chicks, lambs and rabbits. You see, words matter.

You may remember, in the immediate wake of the EU Referendum, a ridiculous suggestion that the mottoes Dieu et Mon Droit and Honi soit qui mal y pense be removed from the new British passports on the grounds that they were in French (https://petition.parliament.uk/archived/petitions/163824). Yes, even with Brexiteers words matter, though in this case they blew up in the would be petitioner’s face.

You may or may not be pleased to know that the petition to Parliament fell far short of the 10000 signatures required to trigger a debate. Maybe it was down to the counter arguments that words like ‘passport’ were themselves of French or Latin origin, as are all the words below in bold:

The vote to leave the EU means people voted to Take Back Control. Control of their borders, their culture and their language. Whether ‘Dieu et mon droit’ and ‘Honi qui mal y pense’ have existed as mottos in England for ages is irrelevant. French is an EU language and has no place on a UK passport.

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Downside Up

Wondering among Words 5: Upside Down

A witty and amusing post by the Polish photo blogger who calls himself Rabirius was titled ‘Upside Down’: it showed two wheelie bins side by side, one arranged the correct way and the other … not.

It got me wondering: why do we in English call topsy-turvy things ‘upside down’ and not ‘downside up’? Why the bias? And do other Western languages do the same?

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Brexit and books

The regrettable triggering of Article 50 — the notification of  the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union — has coincidentally led to a leak of a discussion document, purportedly from Whitehall. This suggests that withdrawal from the EU will not only restrict entry to the UK by economic migrants from Europe but that imports of books from the continent may also be restricted. And there’s more.

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No Land is an Island

John Donne as a young man
John Donne as a young man

Yes, you read that right — I haven’t forgotten what John Donne really wrote (No Man is an Island, in case you need reminding). I’m referring to the EU Referendum vote that will be taking place a couple of days after Midsummer’s Day, when the people currently living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be asked a simple Yes/No question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

(or, as Welsh speakers will see it, A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?)

I won’t go into the convoluted political details of why this question is being asked now. The steam coming out of my ears and the air being turned blue would thoroughly obscure any rational arguments for or against. But my concern is simply that the UK might throw the baby out with the bathwater because of the xenophobia that is being whipped up by some sections of the media.

Xenophobia is a nasty word for a nasty thing. Continue reading “No Land is an Island”

Born to be wild

Western Polecat (Mustela putorius)
Western Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Helga Hofmann Wild Animals of Britain & Europe
translated by Martin Walters
Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins 1995

As we drove down a country road yesterday morning a familiar form crossed in front of us: a polecat. We recognised it by its colouring, the distinctive dark mask over its face, and by its size. What we weren’t familiar with was its gait, because the only previous time we’d seen one was after our field had recently been mowed for hay, and by then the poor creature was quite dead. The cat appeared interested in it, mainly because of the strong scent it had left behind — the second element of its Latin name Mustela putorius means ‘smelly’. We left it for other carnivores to feast on or for a passing buzzard to carry away. To identify it was just a matter of moments Continue reading “Born to be wild”