Sunday, 28 October 2012

A tear

In the pre-checks for my last blood donation on Friday morning - my 99th - I thought I got a whiff of the impact of the crisis in Greece. The nurse, who knows me well, sees from my questionnaire, that I'm recently returned from Corfu. She looks in her 'book'.
"Hm. Yes. I think it's OK"
"Corfu isn't included in the West Nile Virus. It's just the mainland isn't it?"
"No longer"
Well maybe it's nothing to do with the malaria creeping back into Greece.
After a 40-year hiatus, malaria is returning to Greece. Some 70 cases have been reported there this year, and at least 12 people appear to have been infected in the country. (The others picked up the disease elsewhere.) That's a concern for health workers because it means malaria may now be endemic to Greece — and not just hitching a ride with travelers. Plus, the parasite is showing up in regions where it has never been reported, the U.S. Centers of Disease and Prevention said in a statement last week...
Celebrating my 75th donation - six years ago
I'm rather looking forward, in a Boy Scout way, to making my 100th donation next March. We'll have been back to Corfu before then. Might there be a problem?
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I'd heard that Patrick Leigh Fermor suffered from writer's block but only recently turned up what is probably the original reference to this condition. On 29 Sept'11 Colin Thubron wrote in the New York Review of Books:
Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment...
Forging his prose must have been an effort. I imagine him walking or travelling on sea and land, his broad intellect at work on sentences which would capture with precision an understanding - as rough stone takes form under the chisel and rasp – of the ancient divergence of Eastern and Western Christianity, something that's long intrigued and eluded my capacities for understanding history and theology. It was not perhaps accurately a writer's block; it was a thinker's block.
I have lots of facts. I understand almost nothing of why such differences divided whole populations for centuries. Why should the words 'and the Son' - filioque - matter so much?
Greek creed: Καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, τὸ κύριον, τὸ ζῳοποιόν, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, from the Father proceeding.
Latin Creed: Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who from the Father and the Son proceeds.
And why should it matter as much to a secular student? That's my problem. Leigh Fermor has an agenda - a lover's search for the continuity of Hellenism. The things that happened in between.
Between when and when?
Well, say, the surrender of Athens in April 404 BC after the Battle of Aegospotami which ended the Peloponnesian War and Byron's death at  Mesolongi 19 April 1824- about 2228 years - give or take a few weeks.
No, no, no....from the death of Alexander in 323 BC and the break-up of his empire.
No! Again no.
What of the Hellenistic Period and the Seleucid Empire that ended with the triumph of Rome at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, making that ridiculously vague interval just 1855 years? And why the date of the death of Byron?
I wasn't taught about these dates, these chronologies and sequences. It was more simply 'Ancient Greece';  wonderful pre-historic tales ill-placed in times - about Theseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Perseus, Andromeda, the Olympian Gods and, later, in my spotted learning, Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey and even later the Aeneid which only then, in Latin not Greek, tells the appalling prevenient account - horresco referens - as Sinon opens the Wooden Horse and through the night the merciless sacking of Troy begins - no finer account was ever written of such a calamity.
I didn't hear of the Seleucid Empire until now and I looked upon the history of Byzantium as a different part of the curriculum; a mess of marble fragments.
As with ideas that express a convincing truth, there is so much missing evidence; so much rebuttal. If Leigh Fermor, deeply self-educated in Hellenistic and Byzantine history, claims a stark contrast between the iconography of the Orthodox and the Latin churches, there will be, especially for someone as well travelled as he, be much contrary evidence.
On the grey rainy windy days when I've wandered alone and with Lin and my mother in this chilly church, I've gazed up and not noticed it, but plenty of others have seen the tear that lies on the face of the Virgin Mary amid the gold mosaic of the central apse of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello.
My mother in Santa Maria Assunta 
This is a Venetian-Byzantine Church; the image created in the 13th century, over two hundred years before the Fall of Constantinople. The tear seems an oddity, if Leigh Fermor's distinction between western and easter religious painting is correct.  Recall that Islam and Judaism eschew imagery, deplore it, in some cases with fatal and murderous intensity...
...in the foredoomed task of indicating the unfathomable mystery of Godhead in visible terms, the Greek ikon painters chose the hardest way. They sought ingress to the spirit, not through the easy channels of passion, but through the intellect. Religion and philosophy were as inextricably plaited as they had been in pre-Christian times and this was due to the same philosophical temper which has saved Judaic Christianity(a brief and local thing) and made it Greek, then universal....Mani, c.15
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello - where Venice was founded



I imagine phrases forming in Leigh Fermor's head which when he sat to write resisted the journey from mind to paper. It must have been made trickier by his knowledge of Greek words and grammatical forms that could capture ideas and emotions that cannot be expressed in English -   ἀρετή, εἴδωλον, φιλότιμο, κέφι, μεράκι, απορία, θυμός, θάμβος...I'd like to see the original manuscript for chapter 15 of Mani.
I've read it over and over; at least, in part because it seems to help me; I say 'seems' to help me arrive at a real rather than a purely memorised mechanical grasp of the filioque difference. Leigh Fermor argues that the Orthodox theology of the Transfiguration - an astounding moment for which θάμβος is apt -    καὶ μετεμορφώθη έμπροσθεν αυτών καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος, τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰ ὡς τὸ φῶς (Κατά Ματθαίον 17.2) ...and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light - is a more or less direct product of Greek Philosophy.
For extent and influence in the world the dual message of Greek philosophy and the Greek interpretation of the Christian revelation stand alone.
He lists pagan sages - Apollonius of Tyana, Solon, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Thucydides, Sophocles - without haloes but in robes 'as honourable as those that adorn the Christian saints' painted with them on the walls of a small church on the edge of Layia in the Mani.
Where but in the ancient schools (these figures imply), were developed the intellectual thews which enabled the great Doctors to hammer the raw material of the Gospels into the intricate and indestructible apparatus of Christian dogma? Without the dialectical and philosophic skill of these rain-swept sages, who would have heard of the Three Hierarchs indoors...(he lists Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom)...who would have unravelled the perplexing skein of the Trinity or confuted the subtle-tongued heresiarchs or championed the Homoousion and the Double Nature? The Greeks do well to honour these ancient mentors...The evolution of Christianity into a logical system which could weather the shocks of millenia, was a Greek thing. The Christian Church was the last great creative achievement of classical Greek culture....
'...when two or three are gathered together in thy Name...'
For many generations, writes Stephen Greenblatt in chapter four of The Swerve, learned Christians remained steeped...in a culture whose values had been shaped by the pagan classics. Platonism contributed to Christianity its model of the soul; Aristotelianism its prime mover; Stoicism its model of providence...
Raphael: The School of Athens
This is Cavafy’s territory - eloquent, gnomic, exciting surmise and reflection on Hellenic continuity. It does not greatly surprise me - since our interests so often ran in parallel - to learn that the last - latest – book my mum ordered (and which Bay bought for her in New York) is Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean world from the second century to the conversion of Constantine (a hundred years before the murder of Hypatia in 415AD).
The transition from pagan to Christian is the point at which the ancient world still touches ours directly. We are heirs to its conclusion: on either side,  participants shared an education which, until recently, we widely maintained. Like most transitions, it was a slow process, marked by unforeseen moments of sudden significance...
To me, whose school days were accompanied by rituals, bells, hymns, sermons and lessons from the King James Bible, whose parish church was Westminster Abbey, the customs, procedures and etiquettes of the Greek Church - whether observed in the quiet of an empty narthex or as a nervous but respecting participant, are more exotic, almost more foreign, than the services I've attended in Birmingham - in synagogues, gurdwaras and mosques. I delight in Greek Orthodox churches - sat alone, gazing around and upward, lighting candles, quietly praying...
"To?"
No preposition. Just praying.
Why 'to'?
Well just perhaps to a mystery; which is why I like Leigh Fermor's suggestion that the image of the Panayia is more mathematical than anthropomorphic, that in these ikons, he sees 'gilded and cube roots of the Logos' and, seeing the Virgin at the foot of the cross, he reads the message 'Do not worship me...but what I represent' - a reaction that contrasts with the feelings evoked by a Latin pieta - the seering image of a mother weeping over her betrayed, abused, tortured and murdered son.
Someone said the tear on the face of Mary in the church on Torcello is for mankind, not for her son. I remain puzzled and confused, but perhaps I'm also seeing that in the differences Leigh Fermor explores. Torcello is in the west, in the Veneto, and yet's it's cathedral is Byzantine, it's image of Mary - an in-between.
The two hour funeral service for my stepmother Maria at St Sophia's Cathedral in Bayswater was almost an ordeal. It wasn't until afterwards at the Makaria supper when a Greek opera singer with piano accompaniment sang Hadjidakis that I wept - not for grief but for joy at the pleasures of all Greece I'd enjoyed with her and my dad and their friends - and one of my my dry-eyed Greek half-sisters looked on concerned and slightly embarrassed.
On Mani see this from a blog about Leigh Fermor
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I'm not sure there could be a more beautiful and poignant or joyful train journey in all the world. The climax, whichever way I travel is Drumochter Pass, and the passage of the watershed into and from the Highlands, where one moment the river runs toward Dalwhinnie, and when descending from the Pass towards Blair Atholl the other way.

In the bright low light of Autumn the one track railway winds through valleys, through moorlands,  by emerald pastures striped with long shadows of tall trees, and now and then sparkling streams with water so clear I see sunlight and shadows on the stones beneath the water. Hamlets and lone farm houses rush by and always the glimpses of water - sometimes lochs with such windless surfaces they turn the landscape upside down. In wet weather torrents jump and splash towards culverts beneath the line. Aviemore, Kingussie, Dalwhinnie...
Dalwhinnie
...Blair Atholl, Pitlochry, Dunkeld and Birnham where I lose my sense of place along a Lowland list of stations on the way to Edinburgh whose names I can't remember.
The Lowlands


And then suddenely here's the bright sea of the Firth of Forth with islands and in the distance, glimpsed before a long bend, the hazy outline of the Forth Bridge over which we'll pass in minutes.
The Firth of Forth

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We've had regular minor problems with battery drain on the Handsworth Helping Hands LGV. We've got over it by jumplead-starting. Allan Broad in the Handsworth Park compound has been especially helpful - hence our present to him and fellow workers of a supply of biscuits, coffee and tea last August. To get to the bottom of this I took the van down to - Cedric Fernandes - Ceds Car Alarms in Hockley and paid £20 for him to check for battery leakage.
"All you've got" he said "is standard drain from three systems"
"Explain"
"You've got the dashboard, the locking and the electric window and mirror controls - they all leak enough milliamps to drain your battery in a fortnight"
"If I take off one lead" which is what we've been doing recently after parking "will that stop that"
"Yes"
"What's the condition of the battery?"
"It's a bit stale and you could do with one that's more heavy duty"
Ced suggested Bannings - a company on the Lichfield Road. I phoned them. It'd be £95 plus VAT.
"I never knew all this about battery drain as just normal" I said
Ced pointed to a smart looking Mercedes in his workshop, bonnet and boot lids raised, wires sticking out all over like a patient in intensive care.
"He's got round 25 electrical systems in there. He hardly ever drives it. We found one system that was draining more than it should. Took a while to find it. You're diesel and need a heavier push. Why I'm saying get a stronger battery."
I drove back to the park compound, disconnected a battery lead and cycled home through the leaf strewn park.
"I guess learning that was worth £20" 

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