Friday, October 05, 2018

Film Notes: Rome, Open City

Sometimes when films are billed as "classics", or "unmissable" they fail to live up to the hype. My Mum is likewise always suspicious when the reviews of a book use the word "achievement"in the publisher's blurb. Roberto Rossellini's "Rome, Open City", is somewhat weighed down with heady reviews, which both elevate expectations and make objective appreciation of the film difficult. 

The film, made in 1945, concerns the Nazi occupation of the city during the latter stages of The Second World War - after the decline of the Italian Fascist State; and during the Allied Invasion of
Italian territory. The ruthless rule of the Nazi occupiers is depicted, along with the exploits and sufferings of the Italian Catholic and Communist resistance movements; as they joined forces against a common foe. Marcello Pagliero and Aldo Fabrizi lead the cast as the communist resistance leader, Georgio Manfredi and Catholic Priest (and document forger, and resistance messenger) Dom Pietro, respectively.

Without giving away to many spoilers, Rossellini uses these characters (their lives, loves, families, etc) to write a a fictional account of life under occupation - which is based on real events. It is a tale of live, loss, betrayal, cruelty, death, defiance, painted against the backdrop of the inevitable destruction of the Third Reich.

Old films, especially those which date back this far, can seem desperately slow and contrived to contemporary audiences. Rome, Open City shows its age, but isn't slow or clunky; but is absorbing and moving - mostly due to the compelling acting of characters like Anna Magnani (as Sora Pina - embroiled in the struggle, as she is marrying into the Resistance), and Maria Michi (as Marina Mari), struggling with drug addiction, compromised loyalties, and treachery. The acid test for me in so any films is whether the plot and characters and good enough to make me care about the outcome. Rome, Open City passes this test absolutely.

Two aspects of the film will trouble contemporary audiences. The first is the bizarre staging of the
Nazi head office, with offices, torture chambers and drinking clubs being three adjacent interconnected rooms. Perhaps such a strange place existed (almost anything is possible); but it did look rather odd - even if it facilitated easy scene changes. The second is that the two most sadistic Nazi villains, Harry Feist as Major Hartmann and Giovana Galletti, as Ingrid; are to varying degrees portrayed as homosexuals. This is obviously going to be interpreted today as the stereotyping of a minority community in overtly evil terms, and summarily rejected. Perhaps though it can be interpreted within an Italian context in 1945 in slightly more sympathetic terms, (while we would want to avoid endorsing such stereotyping obviously). I think the filmmaker is referencing the decline of the Roman Empire which is characterised as being decadent in its power - with the final throes of the Nazi Empire in Rome, - using cultural mores from the 1940s as a device. Many viewers today, are still going to find that aspect troublesome however.

Rossellini brings his film to a climax, which is something akin to the New Testament gospels. As Manfredi is tortured in front of Dom Pietro; his sufferings and wounds (which he chooses to bear, rather than betray his fellow resistance fighters), save lives, and are deliberately filmed in a way which evokes the passion of Christ. (Spoiler alert!) Prior to the torture scene (which earns the film a (12) certificate - but which might disturb many an adult), the Nazi commander expressed his total confidence that a Nazi torturer could beat an Italian resister - on the basis of racial superiority. The fact that he then betrays no-one is not referenced, but the unspoken implication of the fallacy of racial theories thunders though the end of the film. Evil is once again trounced, not by superior fire-power but through redemptive suffering. This aspect of the film is powerful and profound.

The film, it is often claimed, was written in order to re-brand Italians in the wake of their calamitous experiences in the war, under Mussolini, Nazism, and Allied occupation. Rossellini wanted to make a film in which Italians were 'good', and who suffered for their goodness, alongside the other victims of Nazism. Tales of the French Resistance were well-known at this point, and the sufferings of the Jews and others in the camps was soon to come to light too. Rossellini wanted to make sure that the world knew that there were Italians too, who were suffering in order to redeem Europe from evil. Historians have made much of the fact that in order to achieve this he downplayed the role of the Italian fascists, and over-estimates that of the Nazi occupiers. Perhaps so, but nevertheless he achieves his goal of producing a gripping, sympathetic reading of Italian resistance to Nazism and Fascism.

On a personal side-note, my Grandfather fought in the Second World War, and spent the final part of it, guarding POW's in various camps in the UK, including one in Scotland. He told me that while some of the POW camps were high security, the job guarding the Italians was easy. In general, he said, the Italian POWs were relatively content to be there, had no desire to escape, let alone fight any more; and shared the universal opinion that Mussolini was a fool, best avoided until peace came. I suspect my grandfather would have understood Rossellini's remarkable film, better than me.

Friday, September 21, 2018

At the Uath Lochans

Creag Mhor & Beinn Heasgarnaich

Creag Mhor and Beinn Hearsgarnaich (the latter sometimes spelt Shearsgarnaich) are two remote hills in the Forest of Mamlorn, tucked away in the remotest corner of Perthshire. The round of the two hills involved a lot of climbing, and over fifteen miles of walking; and so an early start was required. Leaving Stewart's at 7:15 we drove from Perth, through over Glen Ogle and down to Killin - where we were too early to find a coffee anywhere!

The day before we climbed these hills, the country had been battered by 'Storm Ali', which had caused travel disruption, knocked over countless trees and dumped incredible volumes of rainwater on the land. The river and burns were all high as we drove west, but we weren't quite prepared for the sight of The Falls of Dochart in full spate, as we entered Killin. They were thundering with the most impressive display of white water crashing through the village, under the old stone bridge, and down into Loch Tay.

Our route took us North from the village and then westwards again alongside the other major river which feeds the Tay at Killin - The River Lochay. The Glen Lochay road is unclassified and unsignposted, and we weren't far along it before our hill-day appeared to be postponed. A large tree-trunk, felled by Storm Ali, lay across the road. Thankfully it was rotten enough to be light and between us we were able to roll it to the side, and drive the 10 or so kilometres down this dead-end road, to Kenknock. Older hillwalking books like Irvine Butterfield's suggest that it is possible to drive to Kenknock or even beyond it to Betavaime; but this is no longer possible. A walkers car park (no charge) has been provided, before the road-end, with the request that no parking takes place beyond it.

In steady rain we marched down the road past the farm. My hillwalking books (SMC and McNeish), all suggest that the route along the glen follows the valley floor track. However, a new track has been formed recently as part of the hydro-electricity works which cover these hills, which provides a better route. It runs along the North side of the glen, at about 380m, and is accessed from the old Kenknock to Loch Lyon road, veering left from it by the large hydro-pipeline.

Me, striking an inelegant pose; buffeted by strong winds in Glen Lochay -
 Ben Challum in the distance

There are several new deer-fences in these hills, however, the new hydro-track has walkers gates at every point, so there is no problem with access - in fact the estate has provided a map at the car  park, showing walkers where the new fences are, and the access points too. Once beyond the last deer fence, above the lonely farm building at Betavaime, we turned sharply into the hill, and began the huge ascent of the Sron nan Eun ridge. Above us, rocky outcrops loomed imperiously above us, while below, the lonely upper reaches of The River Lochay gave a real sense of isolation. The head of the glen is dominated by Ben Challum, which I climbed in 2011, but the view of it from Lochay shows its best side!

The Sron an Eun is hard work; it is steep, pathless and after the heavy rain, rather slippery. The best way up seems to follow the line of gully which cuts through the rocks. A path appears for a while, then fades again, and can't be trusted as a route-guide. The narrowing ridge up onto Creag Mhor was probably the finest part of the walk, but going was difficult here in high, blustery winds. Wind and rain, meant that this was quick (photo-less) stop; although Stewart mentioned that as this was his hundredth Munro, a dram was in  order. Toasting his milestone with a rare (and expensive) Tomatin, we got off the summit in search of some respite from the fierce wind.

In between rain-storms, expansive views across Mamlorn opened up.

The descent from Creag Mhor involved heading westwards, then northwards to avoid the steep cliffs which shape the summit cone. A distinctive lochan on the ridge (to Meall Tionail) is the cue to turn eastwards to the pass between this and Beinn Heasgarnaich. Again there is no path, and picking a route between the peat-bogs is the priority here. 

The climb towards Beinn Heargarnaich  goes up the Sron Taibh, and over the intermediate summit of Stob an Fhir-Bhoga. Not as long or quite as steep as the Sron nan Eaun, it is nevertheless a 500metre slog. A feint path appears after the first hundred metres or so, and is quite a good guide around some of the obstacles on the route. The top of Heasgarnaich is a long, broad ridge with a wide elevated end, where a large cairn marks the summit.

Broad summit, high winds. Stewart on the top of Heasgarnaich.

Picking a way down from here isn't obvious. We wound our way down past a series of lochans NE of the summit, before heading eastwards across the estate road over to the Loch Lyon dam. We met a mall shooting party heading up into the corrie, and the keeper gave us some advice on the best route through the peatbogs, and where to go to avoid the hunting.

Looking back along our route

The later half of the day had cheered up, weather-wise, but the weather had one last surprise for us. As we headed down the old crumbling tarmac of the Lochay-Lyon estate road, the wind picked up, the sky darkened and the rain once more lashed down. Back at the car, we extracted wet feet from wet boots, and drove home - back to Perth for 7. Two hard-won, but memorable Munros.

Back to the car, the Lochay-Lyon estate road

Thanks Stewart, for the photos!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Uath Lochans

The Uath Lochans are a delightful little spot in Glen Feshie, in the southern part of the Cairngorms National Park. Pronounced 'Wah- Lochans', this collection of four little lochs in the heavily wooded glen, look like a pawprint on the map.

Despite the many days I have spent in this area,  walking and cycling, this was a place I had never come across, but I read a friend's Facebook post about it and decided that next time I was in area, I'd find it. 

The Uath Lochans turned out to be everything she described; charming, alluring, gentle, peaceful, lonely, isolated and yet easily accessible. Unlike other places like this in The Cairngorms, it's possible to drive right up to the first of the lochans.

Way-marked routes lead round to a charming craggy viewpoint in a lovely position over Glen Feshie.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Monday, September 17, 2018

Corgarff Castle

Book Notes: From Anger to Apathy - The British Experience Since 1975 by Mark Garnett

In this fast-paced, lively and hugely enjoyable book, Mark Garnett (a politics lecturer somewhere or other), takes the reader on a rollicking roller-coaster tour through British politics and culture covering almost five decades in a mere four hundred pages. In his tour de force, Garnet ranges easily between tiny details of stories, elections, characters and incidents on one hand - and generalisations about the country as a whole on the other.

Rather pleasingly, Garnett refuses to be drawn into the standard stereotypes that trap lazier historians; the most obvious is that (a) the 70s were a ghastly time to be alive, with strikes, three-day weeks, rampant inflation, and the Northern Irish troubles; and that (b) Thatcher then came and screwed up our previously wonderful nation. Such poor, but oft-invoked shoddy readings of history fail to satisfy the reader simply on the grounds of lack of internal consistency! Garnett is instead, suitably tough in his analysis of everyone.

His overarching argument (if there really is one), is that Britain has changed since the 70s, and while some of these changes have been good - many are to our detriment. While he paints a bleak enough picture of 70s Britain, he doesn't do it in a 2-dimensional way, but is rather more sympathetic to an age in which there were stronger community, class, union, family and social bonds holding people together.

The layout of the book is interesting too in that the material isn't arranged strictly chronologically, but in themes' with the themes being addressed in a logical order which does represent the times. The anger of the 70s, of the class-conflict and economic and social strife, and the racial riots which filled the headlines, boils over into the early 80s, and on to the miners strikes and poll-tax riots; but we find the anger levels lower at the start than the end of the period. In turn Garnett examines "Fear" (Cold War, Foot and Mouth, Millenium Bug, Aids); Charity Faith and Hope (Live Aid, and Secularisation), Greed (were the 80s really more greedy than other eras?  - not really!), Lust (sex, morality and scandals) and finally Apathy - where he leaves us. Here he is really bleak in his outlook, alleging that we have become stultified consumers, radical post-modern consumers, staring bleakly at moronic 'reality' TV shows, detached from 'reality' itself. He's not that impressed with our democracy, New Labour or the Iraq War either.... but then again, who is, these days?

The book is not just stimulating and sometimes surprising in its various assessments of people movements and ideas; but hugely enjoyable to read too. There were many events detailed here, which I vaguely remember, from childhood - nicely summarised and explained here too. It would be hard to imagine anyone agreeing with everything Garnett has to say, he's simply to much of a maverick to interpret all the events he discusses through a singly party-line; but I defy anyone not to find this book absorbing, gripping and thought-provoking.  

Linn of Dee

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Upper Deeside

(click on image to enlarge)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Three Bridges


Redeeming a naughty word?

Rugby League player and writer Dave Hadfield recounts a bizarre series of events during his team's trip to play 'Sevens' in Italy in he 1980s. The end result was that he was transferred between clubs during the interval and played each half for a different team - wearing shirts of both Oulton Rangers and and Hemel Stags in the course of the match. How his erstwhile team-mates treated him on the pitch after his radical switch of loyalties, he does not record! When Wayne Rooney first went back to Everton to play against his former team - but now earning Manchester United sized wages, it would be fair to describe the Goodison Park atmosphere, as at least er.. 'inhospitable'. I imagine that Hadfield will not have been treated to especially gentle tackling during the second half of the 'sevens' he played for his new team. Changes of loyalty, purpose and identity always stir the emotions.

This observation isn't just limited to the realm of sporting conflict either. People who change sides are routinely hailed as heroes by the new team-mates and their treachery denounced by those whom they have left behind. A politician in my region is still often reminded of her previous party-political affiliation prior to her current membership - with some bitterness. The truth is that like Dave Hadfield, she changed identity, purpose and direction of play, and this is a source of tension.

Essential to the Christian view of the spiritual life is just such a transition. The problem is that the word which was once routinely used to describe it, has fallen into disrepute. So poisonous has this word become that it is often suggested that we drop it from our descriptions of the Christian life altogether. I have some sympathy with the view that the word might be so toxic that its real meaning is obscured by its use, and that people will recoil from it without pausing to consider what it might actually mean. However I am also wary of the fact that sometimes, refusing to use a word that Jesus himself was happy to deploy, might be something akin to being slightly embarrassed of my new team-colours - and that perhaps if Jesus used it, so should I! Jesus of course, warned quite solemnly about people who are "ashamed of me and my words."(1)

The word, of course, is 'repent'! This dirty word in Christian discourse, is no longer considered to be the standard stuff of the spiritual life; but the domain of the swivel-eyed loons yelling at people in shopping centres; usually with Gandalf-length beards, and alarmist sandwich boards. The oft appended 'for the end of the world is nigh' only goes to enhance the sense of disconnection from reality with which the word has become synonymous. The comic-actress Tamsin Greig performed a hilarious little impromptu routine on the Graham Norton show, in which she talked about her atheist neighbour who dog-sits for her when she goes on holiday. The story goes that she gives her new dog a mad-name which her neighbour will be required to yell in the park in order to call it back to heel. The name of the new dog? Of course, it was "Repent!"

Is it possible to rehabilitate this most awkward and embarrassing of words, and deploy it for good, or is it irredeemably lost to us as a useful and helpful description of the transformation we experienced when we became Christians; let alone a credible way of commending this change to those who are outside it? While the cultural and linguistic tide may have turned, in this article I am going to suggest, (perhaps Canute-like), that the word still has much to commend it, and that we are poorer without it.

One of the issues around the word is that it is routinely misunderstood. Monty Python fans will remember the chanting monks who march through The Holy Grail movie, beating themselves over the head with wooden planks. Indeed, during the Great Plagues in England in the Middle Ages, there were flaggellists who did just that. Believing that The Black Death was an outpouring of the wrath of God, they sought to punish themselves, in order to deflect this wrath from the populace. While this might have been well-intentioned, it betrays a complete misunderstanding of what Jesus and the other biblical speakers and writers meant when they called people to "repent". It also (rather wryly) caricatures what many people believe the word to mean today.

If repentance is to be rescued from swivel-eyed loons and flagellists, it is important to try and define what we mean by it. Perhaps the best way to do that is not through complex semantics, but with reference to Rugby League player Dave Hadfield with who we began. When Dave joined his new team, there were certain things which changed. Firstly his rugby shirt was swapped - he publicly identified with his new team, and left something of his old one behind. There's something 'repentance' like about that, but it isn't quite the heart of the matter. Implicit with his free-transfer to his new club, was the understanding that he would completely change his direction of play. That, perhaps, begins to tease open the definition of repentance for us. There is nothing self-flaggellating about the transfer. After all, the Bible is insistent that entry to the Christian-faith is entirely founded upon the grace of God and doesn't require either self-denigrating acts of flagellation, any more than it does self-enhancing acts of charity. In fact, the picture is that passion of Christ, has completed any necessary flaggellation for the whole of humanity; and that as a result, our entry into the Christian life is a free-transfer.

Nevertheless, this free-transfer has immediate and life-changing implications, which we should be fully aware of before we commit to it. That is, nothing less than a complete change in our goals, aims and direction of play. This essentially involves heart-felt changes in patterns of behaviour; using the objective criteria of The Bible, as the standard by which some things which once mattered, matter less. Other things, which were once a regular feature of life are removed - and other things which were never even considered are taken up. In the West today, these typically involve a change to the way we relate to the big-beasts of the human-psyche, (money, sex and power); how we regard stuff, ourselves and others. Clearly this is a long process of refinement we commit to, not an instant or magic re-wiring of the personality. Christians make no claim to being 'good-people', let alone approaching perfection, rather in contrast we would claim to be people who need the forgiveness of God for our faults. Indeed, many of us carry profound and deep regrets for sins committed in the past, and attitudes or desires with which we still wrestle. If our extended sporting-metaphor can be deployed again (without breaking!), we still make errors on the pitch, we sometimes score dreadful own-goals, and give away penalties to the opposition. However, pursuing those things is no longer part of our identity, our purpose, or intention; we are deeply committed to a new direction of play.

If the flaggelists have distorted repentance; we have equally been mislead by the assumption that repentance is essentially a great show of emotion. I suspect that as repentance is primarily a hidden thing, that undue attention is given to any outward signs that is has taken place - such as emotion. Now, repentance can be a very emotional thing indeed. It certainly was for me. C. John Miller's little book on the subject is out of date in only one aspect, namely it's title: "Repentance and Twentieth Century Man". If we were to overcome the obstacle of the title, or re-brand it 'Repentance in the 2stCentury", there is much in it of great benefit. In it, he takes exception to authors like Lewis Sperry Chafer who reduce repentance to a purely intellectual move; when for many of us it was more of a life-defining change of trajectory, undertaken with great feeling. I was an older teenager, wrestling with sin, doubt, and questions of purpose. What stung me into repentance was the strange realisation that despite my rule-keeping adherence, and desire to please, at a heart level I was not at peace with God. My 'religious activities' had neither compensated for my sins, nor changed my sinful desires, nor produced peace in this life, or the promise of hope for the next. Rather my outward 'christianity' was more like a facade than a matter of life-deep substance. Tears there were, but they were hardly the point. For high-profile academic Rosaria Butterfield, repentance was so profound, that she describes it in her memoir as being akin to a "train-wreck". 

Properly understood then, repentance is both required and life-giving. 

It is required, because Jesus demands it, in fact the very first words the New Testament records Jesus as preaching are 'Repent for the Kingdom of God is near"(2). Attempts to remove the notion of repentance from Christianity have been common throughout history; and continue to plague the church today. Some have wrongly thought that repentance is an affront to the idea that God saves us by his grace, not our efforts. They have suggested that saying that repentance is necessary is to put a form of human work in the place where only God's grace must be. This is fraught with problems, because the Bible makes it abundantly clear that while we are saved entirely by God's grace, if applied to us, that salvation changes us completely. The problem is tragically illustrated in one of America's most prominent Christian families. One of their members produced a book which sought to diminish the idea of repentance, creating a false-dichotomy between it and God's grace. The fact that not long after publishing it, he was found to have been committing long-term adultery, is as startling as it is revealing. Now, while there can of course, be free forgiveness and grace for this man; but a heartfelt-returning to God and His ways, must be part of both the path home, and the evidence that change has really taken place. Likewise, placing the subjective standards of our own feelings of what might be acceptable to God, with what the Bible reveals as His standards is a damaging dilution of Jesus' message. The trendy word for this is 'wiring'. The Bible, it is claimed, cannot contradict my 'wiring'. The problem with this is that it reduces everything to the subjective; and if my 'wiring' is itself damaged, then I am measuring everything with a faulty gauge. A deep-level recalibration of life in a godward direction; a complete change in the direction of play is essential.

Repentance is though, when grasped fully; life-giving. For me, the issue was that trying to manage my behaviour; without asking God to change my heart, and my soul, and giving me a new identity; was like the deliberately infuriating arcade game whack-a-mole. As anyone who has ever attempted to play the game will know; wherever you are ready to strike with the mallet, the mole will inevitable pop-up somewhere else! Adding a facade of religious behaviour over my sinfulness neither brought me peace, nor controlled my behaviour very well. In fact whenever I tried to control sin in one area, it infuriatingly popped-up somewhere else. Something deeper was required, something which allowed me to be honest about who I was, allowed me to have integrity, and brought me peace with God, and began the process of long-lasting change. Faith in Jesus Christ, was one side of the coin. The other was inviting him into my life, acknowledging his authority over it, and asking Him to begin changing me - from the inside out. This repentance meant heading back out onto the pitch, in new colours, and ready to begin to play for a different team. Repentance is then, the moment at which the love, grace, joy and transforming power of God flows into a person; and the business of making them more like Christ begins. As Chrislikeness is our aim, purpose and destiny, repentance is not some self-flaggelating ritual, nor an optional-extra; it is the departure-lounge for eternal life. 

Don't expect your former team-mates to welcome your change of loyalty though. It can be rough out on the pitch.
(1) Luke 9:26
(2) Matthew 4:11

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Glen Feshie

It's many years since I have been down Glen Feshie, and I have few memories of it, other than thinking it was worth a re-visit. It wasn't just last week's Cairngorm epic, through the Lairig Ghru, which brought these glens back to my attention either. Scotland's weather conformed today to the traditional pattern, with the West taking the brunt of the rain, and the Eastern mountains hiding in their shadow. I have a friend who works in the hydro-electric industry, and when we talk about Scotland's Highlands, his vast knowledge of the West Coast stands in marked contrast to his relative unfamiliarity with the East. Rain is the resource he farms, and only goes where that is found in abundance. The opposite is the case when planning a short walk, especially with my wife and daughter in attendance.

My memories of Glen Feshie, (which must be fifteen years old, at least), are of a blazing hot summer's day; of the track by the river, and the two Munros, Mulach Clach a Bhlair (steep sided, broad summit, heathery), and Sgor Gaoith (magnificent views towards Braeriach towering over Loch Einich). These old memories are hazy at best, and so a re-visit was in order.

Unlike last week's route march, this afternoon's trek was a pleasant dander forFeshie proved to be an absolute delight however. The wide glen floor, once carved by ice; now has a wonderful river gliding down it, carving its way through the moraines. It is home to a dazzling array of wild flowers, and native natural woodland, which in turn is teeming with life. While the unnaturally tree-less glens are silent and empty; Feshie was alive with scurrying, buzzing, scuttling, with tiny birds on the ground, and birds of prey circling above. In a couple of places, it looked rather like a walk we did last year in the Canadian Rockies (smaller though!), and we recalled the bears we had seen there!
a few miles along the floor of the glen. Glen

Not a Munro, not an epic trek; just a great short walk - and my appetite for the outdoors, fed for another week or so.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Lairig Ghru

The Lairig Ghru is a name which reaches back into my young childhood. Around the same time as my Dad read Tolkein to me, he also told me about the hillwalking trip he took through the Cairngorms when he was fifteen; back in the mid 1950s. Somehow the two things seemed to merge into my young mind, which filed all these mental images under the headings 'mythical' and 'wonderful'. Braeriach, The Forest of Rothiemurchus, Corrour Bothy, Derry Lodge or The Pools of Dee sounded as evocative and far away as Rivendell, The Lonely Mountain, The Shire or The Running River. These are names to enjoy pronouncing, conjuring up images of hobbits on quests or 1950s schoolboys on life-shaping adventures. Rather wonderfully however, The Cairngorms turn out to be real, and accessible.

The Lairig Ghru is described by mountain writer Cameron McNeish as "one of Scotland's truly great walks", and one I have wanted to do for decades. A 'Lairig' is a pass through the mountains, and this one, the Lairig Ghru, allows the walker to cut through the heart of the great Cairngorm range, the old Monadh Ruadh; from Deeside, near Braemar to Speyside near Aviemore. This great heart of eastern Scotland is unpenetrated by roads; even the estate tracks and engineered paths of the beginning and end of the route peter out in the high pass, and boots meet mountains directly without human intercession. It is not entirely natural land (left to its own devices it would be far more forested); but it is undeniably wild land. The mountain rescue service is kept busy here, and sadly not all their expeditions reach happy conclusions; these are not hills in which to get lost, cold, or injured alone. Yesterday, we faced a forecast which was wet and cold, but at the end of an unusually hot summer there was no chance of meeting any lingering snow - which seems to have caused the most problems over the years, lying deep in the Lairig until remarkably late in the year.

The great defile of the Lairig Ghru is visible from Aviemore, a great gash in the bulky skyline above the woods. Sadly, Aviemore is now visible from the Laiig Ghru, a particularly ugly concrete hotel dominates,  whose architect should win some sort of incongruity lifetime achievement award. The southern end of the Lairig Ghru isn't visible from any public road, because there aren't any there; the view up the pass from that end has to be earned by walking or cycling from Linn of Dee either via Derry Lodge and Glen Luibeg or via the White Bridge. I seem to have seen this great walk from all angles over the years, yet never been able to complete the walk, usually for logistical reasons - it's a two car effort, with a long drive in at the end of the day. I've seen it from Braeriach, from Monadh Mhor and walked down into it from the Chalamain Gap; but yesterday (at last!), I had the opportunity to do the complete Linn of Dee to Rothiemurchus route.

One of my neighbours, organised a group, and left a car at Rothiemurchus at the end of her family holiday in Aviemore. Four of us drove through Glen Shee, to Braemar and left my car at the big carpark at Linn of Dee (£3 a day, Pay and Display now!). From here the engineered Glen Luibeg path is well signposted, and snakes its way through the woods, meeting a bulldozed track all the way to Derry Lodge. Derry Lodge, all shuttered and forlorn, was once apparently a busy shooting lodge, full of Victorian and Edwardian hunting parties; busy with the sounds of dogs, the smells of feasts and whisky and adventure. Walking with friends old and new, we mused about what a melancholy sight it now is, and what a wonderful mountain bunkhouse it would make if someone had the time, money, inclination and could get permission. 

The footbridge at Derry Lodge has a signpost pointing westwards to the Lairig Ghru at the far end of it. I remember getting caught in bogs at the next section a couple of times, but it was  hard underfoot yesterday - despite the persistently falling rain. It needs to keep raining for a while yet, to replenish the deficit of a bone-dry summer. We had no need, in fact, to search for the 'hidden' bridge at Luibeg - the water was so low, we walked straight across at the ford.

(Looking into the Larig Ghru from a previous trip to Monadh Mhor)

It's here, beyond the Luibeg Burn, that the walk changes in character - and the excitement begins. As the path winds gently uphill underneath the Munro Carn a Mhaim, The Devil's Peal looms into view. Yesterday, it was magnificent, great slabs of wet, grey rock thrusting skywards into the clouds. Perhaps an appropriate metaphor for such a sight is Tolkeinesque. Either way, it is as the gentle and broad landscape of Glenn Lui is left behind that the Middle Earth of my childhood imagination is entered. Despite the rain, and the plummeting temperatures - it was really magnificent; I couldn't think of anywhere I'd rather have been.

The little bothy at Corrour is a well-known landmark; nestling in the Larig Ghru beneath the Devil's Point and the Angel's Peak. My Dad camped here all those years ago; I can only imagine what a tent made of heavy-duty canvas must have weighed! My kids have camped here on DofE expeditions too. I have previously passed this spot, in the way to and from the adjacent Munros. The usual loose association of good natured hill-folk were hiding in the bothy yesrerday lunchtime, travellers from Scotland, Wales and England - some staying the night, others just sheltering from the rain. We had a brew-up, a chat with the folks there, and layered up, before heading back out into the rain, and biting wind. The path is clear, and follows the east side of the glen floor, past a stone named as the Clach nan Taillear. A stone with a name, might indicate a memorial to some ancient tragedy - the hills and weather certainly looked foreboding as we climbed into the heart of the mountains. If we had felt large and confident, striding through the woods to Derry Lodge, we now looked like little hobbits beneath the huge peaks of Cairntoul and Ben Mandui looming either side.

The path runs into a boulder field by the Pools of Dee at the head of the Lairig. There are no problems here, other than a far slower rate of progress than is possible either side; and the path braids and re-joins repeatedly. Nevertheless it's a quick descent down to the trough where the Braeriach path drops in from the left and the Chalamain Gap path climbs out to the right. The time I walked through the Gap, on my own, very early one morning, the moon was huge - and eerily framed in the Gap itself.

The path descends rapidly into the wonderful Rothiemurchus forest. This living remnant of the Great Caledonian Forest is soft; teeming with life and aromatic. The midgies were in their element here too; and soon our party reeked with the ghastly odour of Skin-So-Soft; allegedly the best defence against the little pests. Smelling like a bunch of Grannies at a perfume convention, and surrounded by a cloud of swirling black dots we picked out way through the woods, to the landmark of the Cairngorm Club Footbridge and on towards the waiting car at the road by the campsite. The engineered paths here are well made and as a result bog-free. They are also rock-hard, and several miles of pounding them made my feet ache. My lovely old walking boots are in their last days of useful life, the uppers are wearing and the soles are desperately thin. They no longer grip much, or provide much cushioning from the relentless thumping, and will soon be put out of their misery. As a result, by the time we completed our 20miles, (47,000 steps according to a Fitbit wearer), I was glad to see the car and lift my feet from the boots.

The day was completed with dropping one walker to the station at Aviemore, while the rest of us drove via Tomintoul and the Lecht, to collect my car at Linn of Dee for the return drive to Perth. Sadly, the chippy in Braemar was closing so there was no fish, or pies, or haggis to be had; happily the owner was glad to hand us three portions of chips, completely free. It was past closing time, and they would be thrown out otherwise!

The Lairig Ghru is a classic Scottish Walk. I'm glad to have finally followed in my Dad's footsteps (and er.... those of Bilbo obviously); and walked all the way through. I love these mountains, and get there so rarely. The day was made complete by safe travels and great company. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Book Notes: The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism by Dan Cohn-Sherbok

As readers of this blog will be aware, over the years, I have read about and reflected often on the Shoah, the Holocaust of the European Jews in the 1940s. You can read some of these posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Until now, however, I have never read anything which really tries to examine the Holocaust as part of the long history of Anti-Semitism in general, and the role of Christianity within that. The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism by Dan Cohn-Sherbok is exactly that. As a book reviewer who is part of the Christian faith, my response to such a work is simply this: read it and weep.

The first half of the book is divided by eras, with a mass of information on Anti-Semitism gathered under heading such as "The Greco-Roman World", or "The Church Fathers" or "Medieval Anti-Semitism". As the latter half of the book moves into the modern era, and so presumably sources become more abundant, the material is subdivided by nations, and specific historical incidents, such as Nazism, and post-Nazi Europe. While there are some criticisms to be made around the margins of the book; the main theme and thrust of what Cohn-Sherbok amasses here is as undeniable as it is disturbing. The litany of libels, pogroms, expulsions, murders, demonisations, and all manner of hate-crimes recorded here, is shocking. What is appalling, and disgusting, is how many of these were committed in the name of the Christian religion - at times with the collaboration of church leaders. While many people will be familiar with the accusation that the papacy was morally tarnished by its dealings with the Third Reich; what is perhaps less known is how far this was a part of a trend which reared its ugly head at regular, sorry intervals throughout history. This is truly grim reading.

The quibbles I had with a few aspects of the book, should not be, in any way whatsoever, seen to be detracting from the importance of the central thesis it contains: that Jewish people have been systematically mistreated  in the name of Christianity from Britain to Russia via most most points between them. They are however worth noting in passing, inasmuch as this is a book review, not a historical essay. The first is that there is a dreadful lack of referencing in the book. Even whole inset paragraphs, attributed to an array of writers, are not referenced! In terms of historical writing this is poor, not just in terms of fact-checking, but also further reading.

The element I struggled most with however, was Cohn-Sherbok's repeated assertion that the New Testament documents are intrinsically Anti-Semitic, because of the theological premise that God's salvation is found uniquely in Christ, and that He is the fulfilment of scripture; the implication being that to reject Christ is to reject YWHW. Furthermore, Christ's battles with the religious authorities of his day, referred to as 'The Jews', whose false legalistic righteousness is contrasted poorly with those who repent and follow Christ - is interpreted as a pro-Gentile anti-Jewish text, which prepares the way for prejudice and violence. There are numerous problems with this. The first is that the context of these documents is a largely Jewish early church wrestling with these questions amongst themselves; whilst being persecuted by the Jewish authorities of their day. They were no more anti-Semitic than Jeremiah or Amos were as they warned Israel and Judah about their apostasy back in the Hebrew Bible in centuries "BC". Likewise the righteous who appear in the gospels in contrast to the religious leaders were categorically not gentiles, but the poor from amongst Israel. That such texts were misappropriated by Anti-Semites for thousands of years, is not in any doubt; what I am not convinced by is the suggestion that these texts in any way justify any form of Anti-Semitism. Whilst someone reading these words in the context of The Spanish Inquisition might have read them that way, is possible; but what I can say is that being brought up on these texts in the post-Holocaust era; I never found even the slightest inference of prejudice in them. In fact, in the conservative church in which I grew up, the age-old slander that the Jews were "Christ-killers", was never even allured to. Rather, at communion services, we were constantly told to reflect on our own unspeakable sinfulness; for which Christ offered his own life on the cross.

We must be able to debate and discuss ideas, with rigour; without hating, or despising, or persecuting people. That distinction is under increasing threat in today's world. In a couple of places, Cohn-Sherbok seemed to come close to implying that to critique Jewish theology was essentially racist. The charge that 19thC Higher Criticism, and the application of techniques such as form and redaction criticism, were Anti-Semitic, because they undermined trust in the Hebrew Bible, I found very odd indeed. For a start such methods were applied to the New Testament as well, casting doubts (for instance) into the Pauline authorship of Ephesians; so singling out literary critical methods as prejudice-inducing, is misplaced. Another problem, is that while Cohn-Sherbok amasses a case against Christianity, he muddies the waters by including the writings and actions of many westerners who are far from Christian; Voltaire, Wagner, Marx, Hitler and Hegel for a start. This does not negate, his argument but confuses it a bit. Finally, there is inadequate discussion of the nature of church-state-identity relations in the 'Christendom' era; which explains why Judaism was seen as intolerable. Historians of these era, have shown that religious compliance was a matter of loyalty and identity more than belief and conviction; and that all dissenters (such as the Anabaptists) were brutally suppressed along with the Jews. Now, this does not, justify the evil actions of the perpetrators, any more than it mitigates the suffering of the victims. It does suggest however that the historical processes were more nuanced than Cohn-Sherbok's 'Christians have always hated Jews' thesis allows.

But please note; these quibbles do not detract from the central thrust of the book; that Jewish people have suffered appallingly, across the centuries, and across cultures; suffering many persecutions at the hands of those who claimed to be Christian. The main sections of this book are as disturbing, as they are essential reading.

The conclusion of the book, after an especially harrowing account of the Holocaust (but a weak attempt to implicate Christianity in it); is a really interesting essay. In 'towards reconciliation', Cohn-Sherbok writes about shifts in Christian thought which have reduced tensions between the two-faiths; despite such a long history of misunderstanding, prejudice, and bloodshed between them. Helpfully these include (i) official denunciations of Anti-Semitism from church bodies and Synods, (ii) a theological rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus of Nazareth - a very rich area of research and now common currency in the church, and (iii) alternatives to strict 'replacement theology' being proposed, not least by Messianic Jews today and (iv) Christian theological responses to the Shoah, such as Jurgen Moltmann's Crucified God, which while distinctly Christian in nature and Trinitarian in structure, suggests profound ways of engaging with the presence of God in a world marked by unrestrained and demonic evil such as the death camps. Perhaps less helpful, were the suggestions that Christians should dilute their theology into a Jon Hick style plurality, or Liberal Anglican disdain for proclaiming Christ to the whole world. Obviously the threats or bribery which sought external compliance with Christendom, are as unacceptable as they are redundant; but the UN Declaration on Human Rights (Article 18 - Freedom of Religion), was written in response to the terrors of the 30's and 40s, and applies to all. Increasingly, of course, the context of the Christian witness to Jewish people is that of Messianic Jews, who join the debate about whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah, from within the Jewish people - and that looks a lot more like the New Testament anyway.

As I write, the Labour Party in the UK is involved in a bitter internal dispute about Anti-Semitism. The suggestion that the radical left's unquestioning commitment to the Palestinian cause, and the large Muslim vote in the English cities, is fuelling such a problem is made almost daily in the press. Six years ago I went to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Deeply moved, walking above the stelae above ground, we then went below to see the records where the names of every known Jew who perished at Treblinka, Sobibor, Birkenau, Ravensbruck, Auschwitz and the rest, are kept. Even then, I shuddered at the enormity of it. After reading The Crucified Jew, I suspect that the feeling would be greatly amplified; standing as I do, in a faith which has been so deeply implicated in their suffering over the centuries. Now, I am not personally responsible for the pogroms, any more than the Jews of 13th Century England caused the death of Christ. Nevertheless, we are branches on trees with very deep roots; defined by and both united and divided by our respective histories. The weight that presses down on us is therefore not so much personal guilt, more the sense of responsibility to prevent such things ever happening again to anyone of any creed. It was possibly the greatest of the all the writers to have escaped from the camps, Primo Levi who wrote; "It happened, therefore it could happen again; this is the heart of what we are saying." Indeed it could.

This is disturbing reading. Sometimes though, I think we need to be disturbed.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Interview with Jonathan Veira

Whether performing opera, gospel, or comedy, Jonathan Veira is known as a larger-than-life character, with a powerful voice and big laugh. When I spoke to Jonathan, I found him in a thoughtful mood, reflecting insightfully on fame, art, work, and the faith that inspires him.

How did you get into opera? I’m guessing it wasn’t the suggestion of a careers teacher?!

JV: My careers advice at school was rubbish! But I had a music teacher who was brilliant at encouraging me. I was terribly bullied, but he took me under his wing and gave me the key to practice rooms, where I started to do music all the way up through ‘A’-level. Whenever I did things on stage he said “Jonathan has ‘it’!” So he pushed me and pushed me and encouraged me to go on to further study.

At university they said to me, “you aren’t very good at the viola, why don’t you have singing lessons?!” In my first singing lesson I thought the professor would want me to sing like a classical singer, so I did my impression of one. Now I’ve ended up singing for the last 34 years professionally… doing an impression of an opera singer; I just hope nobody finds out! 

Then I studied music as a postgraduate, won some national singing competitions, which got me noticed by the famous Glyndebourne Opera Company who asked me to audition, and gave me a job!

What was your first lead role?

JV: Well, you start with a lot of comprimario roles, an aria here or there; but my first ‘lead’ was when I did The Magic Flute. When I was 30 I did Falstaff.

That’s quite young for Falstaff!

JV: Yes, it was very young, and it was frightening actually. But I was starting to learn what I was doing. Recently “Stage Magazine” said, “Jonathan Veira is the best in the UK at doing these roles”, so now, at 55, I think it’s time to retire, while I’m still the best!

The Guardian review of you in La Cenerentola described it as, “High Camp, irony, and huge fun”; it sounds like a cross between Rossini and Monty Python!

JV: In my operas I want people to laugh out loud. I don’t care about sensibilities, I’m not posh, I’m quite earthy, I suppose, and I like people to laugh at stuff that’s funny.

And you like playing villains too!

JV: Yeah – I do! Goodies can be fairly one-dimensional.  Baddies are usually the parts which are etched by the writers more carefully. The goodies are well… good aren’t they?! They say the right things, do the right things, like Cinderella.

The Marriage of Figaro, is a dark comedy; all about what was called the Droit du seigneur, which means the right of Counts to have the virgins of the village. But then what follows is redemption because the bad person turns good; so there’s somewhere for you to go with a villain.  Don Giovanni, though, gets his comeuppance, because he doesn’t repent. So I do like playing villains! I don’t celebrate how bad they are, but you have to be bad in order to make sure that the good comes out.

Some interpreters see Christ allusions in Billy Budd and you played the mutinous Claggert in there, to set the story up!

JV: Yes – exactly right, Claggert was one of those who was almost totally evil, but yet there’s one moment where he delivers: I want to love but I can’t ! He teeters on the edge, which is very interesting to play. Finally Billy dies almost sacrificially, a sacrifice is made so that that goodness can be seen. I mean what else is there?

Music is an extraordinary gift of God to humanity

JV: Well, if it’s not, …. I don’t know what is!!

I think we are creative people made in the image of a creator God

JV: I think so. “The man who hath not music in his soul, is fit for treason, stratagems and spoils!”, that’s Shakespeare, but the great poet O’Shaugnessy says “we are the music makers”, those who create order from chaos. Music puts order into a chaotic world. I intervene and I create the sound, the rhythm, the tone, the beauty. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s something spiritual, something transcendent that happens when I sing. Now, I have been given that gift, and I haven’t been given any others, I can’t do anything else, I’m useless!

But along with the gift, there is a lot of discipline in your art; how long does it take you to learn a part?

JV: It took me initially six months to learn a role. I’m partially dyslexic, so I do it over and over again.
To be the best at something they say you have to invest about 10,000 hours. I’ve done my 10,000 hours, so now I know the process of learning. But some of these roles take me months to learn. Some of them in Czech are very difficult.

You are actually called to be professional, with a big work ethic. I think there is something about being Christian in the way that you work; where you honour the people who come to hear you. I was quite ill recently, and I had to go on and do a show, which I got through with God’s help. People said to me, “Why didn’t you just cancel?” But I have a responsibility to my audience.

How many languages have you performed in?

JV: Eight! In whatever the opera is written in, be it Russian, French, German, Italian, Swedish, and a lot of Czech.

Is it hard to deliver jokes, in a language that isn’t your own?

JV: Yes – but you’ve got your body as well, not just your voice. You have your face, your hands, your body position. It does mean that you have to work harder than if you are singing in English. I would say that I didn’t really know what I was doing until about 1990. You only really start learning when you perform in front of people who have paid two-hundred pounds a ticket, where you either sink or swim, because opera is a ruthless world!

If you could choose one performance from those thirty-two years, as the one you are most proud of, which would it be?

JV: I remember doing Falstaff in Denmark at the Verdi Festival. Danish audiences don’t applaud a lot, and they certainly don’t give standing ovations. At the end of the first night, fifteen-hundred people all stood to their feet! I wept, I really did – I wept. There are times like that…

Then there are times when I perform with my sons. They are great musicians on their own, but if you ask me for a great or favourite moment, it’s when we come together!

Then, when I did Mozart’s The Magic Flute with the famous conductor Jane Glover. It was a huge performance for me, and I came on for my bow to three-thousand people giving a standing ovation. I looked behind me because I thought someone else had walked on!!

But there are two sides to every story. After the applause in Denmark, everyone came back to the dressing room, saying, “oh how marvellous, blah blah blah”, but then I went out of the stage door into the cold. It was snowing, and I went back to my hotel. As I walked out into the street, nobody knew who I was, nobody knew what I’d just done, there was an emptiness…. I thought of people without faith; what do they do? Obviously they will drink, they will take drugs and have affairs, doing what they need to do to fill that void, because applause is a drug. So when you get back in the hotel, and there’s nobody to give you adulation, it brings you right down to the brass tacks of who you are, and how you want to live and what is it that motivates you.

And which came first, Christian faith or professional singing?

JV: Oh, faith. I was brought-up in the Christian Brethren and I came to faith quite early, but I didn’t really know what it was until I went to university.

So what is at the centre of the faith you developed at University?

JV: The person of Jesus! People can get bogged down in church ‘stuff’.  But what we must look at first is the character and person of Jesus and if we don’t do that, if we don’t understand who he is; everything else pales into insignificance. When Jesus isn’t central, what becomes central is ‘my place in the church’, which doesn’t actually matter! So, I’m a Christian today, not just for Sunday, not just when I do my shows, but when you catch me now. Here’s who I am, this is me; and that is both a weakness and a strength.

You’ve never hidden your faith in the opera world though.

JV: No

How have people responded?

JV: Some people are antagonistic and want an argument! I don’t present myself as some kind of virtuous perfect guy, I just turn up and start working. I sometimes lose my temper, like everyone else does; but it’s how I then go and apologise that contextualises my faith. I don’t take my Bible to work and preach at people; but people do want to talk to me. Someone recently came to me asking “What do you think about faith? Is it difficult to be a Christian?” and I said to him, “Yes it is.” But it’s no more difficult to be a Christian singer than a Christian banker or anything else. You take in your core values, and your faith. You walk in with Jesus and you walk out with him.

Christians are deliberately very misunderstood, by an atheistic media who want to decry faith. But rather than shout and scream about that I just say, “well this is me; you can criticise me as much as you like. I’m doing my job, I’m doing it well”.

How do people respond when you talk about your faith in Jesus in your one-man show?

JV:  We’ve always wanted my shows to be a place where people could bring their non-church friends where they wouldn’t be embarrassed or made to cringe. I just talk about my faith and share it in song. And I have lots of responses, from total elation to utter disgust; from “how could you mention your faith; what’s that got to do with anything!”; to “I can’t believe you’ve made me think about faith, and now I’ve become a Christian!”

And you sing songs like, “I want Jesus to walk with me”

JV: Yeah by Eric Bibb! It’s one of the most wonderful songs. I often close my shows with that song, followed by “How Great Thou Art”.

What’s your next musical project?

JV: At the moment I have backed away from opera, I’m still doing it, but when I choose to. I’m now touring my one-man show “Song and Tales”.

Do you have any musical ambitions left?

JV: There’s one I would love to do… Sweeny Todd! I played the judge in Sweeny Todd, at Covent Garden with the legendary Stephen Sondheim. Todd is the arch-baddie; but one who’s been wronged. And there is also redemption for him, somewhere in there! I would fancy that.

What about personal ambitions?

JV: I did want to play cricket for England but that ship has sailed I’m afraid. Offstage, I always want to be a better person because ultimately, “singing is more than a job, but it’s less than a life!”

So what makes a complete life?

JV: I think having God in your life gives you context. It settles you where you are, tells you where you are in the universe: that you’re not the centre of it, but that GOD is, and He loves you.


This was first published in SOLAS Magazine, reproduced with permission.