Archive for October, 2006

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Auschwitz-Birkenau

October 30, 2006

A few days ago I saw a bunch of Israeli kids at the WWII extermination camp at Birkenau, Poland. They were walking down the very same railway tracks that had delivered a generation of their forebears to death in the gas chambers. It was great to see the Star of David displayed in that setting, I can tell you.

The day was grim, overcast, brooding. We watched from the guard post, much as the SS men would have done, not so very long ago. Birkenau was purpose-built by the Nazis for the liquidation of the Jews, and it was teeming with ghosts. I wondered what they made of it — what they thought of these bold children, who bore on the backs of their jackets the name of a nation that more than a million people whispered for comfort, once or twice, in this dreadful place before they were killed.

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Cowardice, or the fate of the prophet

October 30, 2006

Intellectual cowardice, we can all agree, is a very bad thing. Yet perhaps it isn’t always or necessarily so. Life can be a bastard, sometimes: it hands us situations or ideological articulations that confound our deepest beliefs, whether arrived at by instinct, upbringing or education, but which nevertheless carry the force of experience or conviction which cannot readily be contradicted with equal force from behind the political barricades. We know, or rather feel, that “such things” cannot be, but not why not.

At such times we tend to shy away, find excuses for not dealing — unless our faith in shibboleths is strong enough to see us through the moments of difficulty (which is another form of moral cowardice, of running away).

Believe it or not, revisionism is the hardest road of all. Only slowly and most unwillingly were some of my generation able to realise that we had got the Vietnam War all wrong, that we had been on the wrong side. It was just as traumatic to recognise that the use of atomic weapons against Japan at the end of WWII was justified — morally, militarily and politically — however awful their effect.

It gets no easier over time. Here, for example, is one of the bogeymen of my own political adolescence, Enoch Powell, speaking in 1976 (with thanks to Laban Tall). I can’t avoid the uncomfortable feeling he just might have been onto something back then, for all the opprobrium he copped for it. Still I jib, coward-like. How could anyone of decent instinct possibly agree with…well, him?

But in the wake of last year’s riots in Cronulla and Paris and their aftermaths (the Paris riots are currently being reprised), the not-yet-dead Danish cartoons furore and the Mufti of Australia’s recent comments on rape, maybe he has something useful to say to us, after all.

The nation has been, and is still being, eroded and hollowed out from within by the implantation of large unassimilated and unassimilable populations … in the heartland of the state. … The disruption of the homogeneous “we”, which forms the basis of parliamentary democracy and therefore of our liberties, is now approaching the point at which the political mechanics of a “divided community” take charge and begin to operate… The two active ingredients are grievance and violence.

There is one factor which not yet been injected. That factor is firearms and explosives… with the escalating and self-augmenting consequences which we know perfectly well from experience in … other parts of the world. I do not know whether it will be tomorrow, or next year, or in five years: but it will come.

At first there will be horrified astonishment, and inquiry as to what we have done wrong that such things should be happening. Then there will be feverish endeavour to find methods to allay the supposed grievances which lie behind the violence. Then follows exploitation by those who use violence of the ascendancy they have thus gained over the majority and over authority. The things goes forward, acting and reacting, until a position is reached in which … compared with those areas, Belfast today will seem an enviable place.

Populist, alarmist, racist — or disturbingly prescient?

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Opera tour completed

October 25, 2006

Returning soon.

Best: Carmen at the Vienna State Opera two nights ago. Or maybe The Barber of Seville in Prague, a couple of nights earlier.

Why is The Currency Lad still silent?

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Staatsoper, Wien

October 6, 2006

Somehow it was only on reflection that we realised how perfect the performance was, on the night of 3rd October 2006, of Mozart’s most ambiguous and dramatically difficult but most musically perfect opera, The Magic Flute. Of course it’s well known that The Magic Flute changes course mid-way: the putative villain — Sarastro — becomes the saviour figure, and all of that, as though either Schikaneder or Mozart had said, late in the piece, “Hey, hang on….”. But none of that matters. In a great performance, all the incongruities fade away in the face of music of such perfection. It was G.B. Shaw, no less, who said that the music Mozart composed for Sarastro was the only sound one could with decency imagine issuing from the mouth of God.

So it was two nights ago. With a perfect orchestra, faultless singing and the effortless but commanding direction of Alfred Eschwe we experienced virtually the perfect performance. All the bits fell into place and complemented and reinforced each other with a sweetness and felicity that can only be imagined from recordings. And the audience’s applause seemed never-ending.

[This is not a case of being Vienna-struck. Tonight we went to a performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Volksoper, about which the less said, the better, at least for now.]

Now, the Staatsoper itself — the venue, not merely the seat of performance. Well, Old Europe was there in strength, dripping with jewels and fine fabrics, men and women both, old and (surprisingly, at least to us) young. Wearing the wealth and heritage of hundreds of restless years with effortless and invisible style, they managed to impale us — the non-European parvenus, the un-dinner dressed — without moving a single muscle of their faces. Like watching an outraged cat: you wonder how they do it. Their disgust and revulsion were the more eloquent for being silent. They hated us, all right, just for being there, for interloping, for being able to jostle with them for a place at the bar — their bar. Perhaps they abhorred us not for simply being, but for not even trying while we were about it. Did we have to turn up in jeans, speaking English?

I could see their point. Indeed, you had to both admire and pity them. Theirs is a Europe which is no more — and perhaps never was, except for them and theirs. But without them and theirs there never would have been a Staatsoper in Vienna, and no patrons for to sponsor young Mozart through to immortality, and no audiences like us to write what I just wrote about the impossiblity of matching the experience of two nights ago unless one goes again to Vienna, to the Staatsoper, and to another performance of one of Mozart’s deathless masterpieces.

Oh, and Vienna is sensual. The streets and buildings breathe it somehow. Even the tramcars are sensual, sliding around on their silver tracks, butting against the stop signs. The women are foot-, earth- and heart-stopping. You never saw such grace and elegance. At least I never did, even in Italy. (The guys are ordinary enough, however.)

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Matchless Mozart

October 4, 2006

The Vienna State Opera performed Mozart’s Die Zauberflote last night and we were there.

It was beyond description. Everything worked as it should, and perfectly.