14 October 2016

Dig Down

All about spadework and treasure, our latest song Dig Down is actually based on the blog entitled Gem.  Does that make it a blong?  In any event, hope you enjoy it!

5 September 2016

Saint Teresa's Knick-Knacks

Front page of Diario de
Ávila - a selfie with St Teresa

'Are you on pilgrimage?' A friend asks. 
That has not been the intention.  

But here in Avila, it is hard to escape the tracks of Saint Teresa, prominent Spanish mystic of the Middle Ages.  I’ve seen her right hand ring finger, preserved in a jar.  I’ve eaten a yema de Santa Teresa, yema meaning, ‘yolk’, ‘fingertip’ – or more prosaically, ‘confection made from egg yolk and sugar’.  And I’ve plonked myself down beside her brand new statue, sculpted by Óscar Alvariño, just outside the convent carrying her name and built on the spot where she was born in 1515.

Unveiled on the day before I arrived, the bronze Teresa sits alone on a stone bench – or rather she would be alone were it not for the constant stream of paparazzi and selfie-seekers determined to get snapped with her.  They come as individuals, couples, groups:  an immaculately coiffed old woman kissing her on the cheek.  Three generations of the same family celebrating a golden wedding  and setting up a team photo with Teresa as mascot in the centre.  A chubby boy running his toy plastic sword across her throat.  No mates a la santa!  Don’t kill the saint! exclaims his father, bedecked with three crucifixes.  

Golden wedding celebration with Teresa in the middle

About 20% bigger than life size, the sculpture holds a quill in her right hand and a notebook on her lap, symbolising  instructive works that she penned, including El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle), El Camino de Perfección (The Way of Perfection), and her autobiography (Life of Teresa of Jesus).  She wrote often frenetically, as if taking divine dictation in a bold and flowing script that, for the most part, eschewed punctuation.  

Entering the Carmelite order at a young age, Teresa grew unhappy with the laxity around her and became the instigator of more severe rules - of silence, continual prayer safeguarded by strict enclosure and solitude, manual labour, perpetual abstinence, fasting, fraternal charity, the renunciation of property, and even the practice of self-flagellation (the coiled rope she used, her disciplina, is on display beside the ring finger).  These reforms eventually led to the creation of the Discalced Carmelites, discalced coming from the Latin meaning ‘shoeless’.  (The usual translation, ‘barefoot nuns’, is perhaps a misnomer, given that the order wore sandals.) 

Often running against the establishment, she tirelessly travelled by mule or oxen to other parts of the country to found and visit some 17 new convents and 15 new monasteries of the men’s order, until illness intervened and she passed away at the age of 67.  But that was by no means the end of her influence, fame or intrigue.  Curious events happened after she died in October 1582.  ‘From the grave of Teresa of Jesus wafted a scent so delicious that the Carmelites desired again to see the body of their mother,’ wrote Sister Ana de San Bartolomé, who had been her close companion and nurse during her final sickness.  Accordingly, some nine months after her death, her coffin was opened and, as is reported in a contemporary account from Jesuit priest Francisco de Ribero, although her nun’s habits had certainly rotted, her body ‘was as healthy and whole as if she had been buried the night before’.  Such bucking of the normal trend towards decomposition is known as ‘incorruptibility’ and in Catholicism is believed to be a sign of holiness.  But rather than being marvelled at, this body, so eerily intact, was subjected to a ghoulish dismemberment, inaugurated by her erstwhile friend and spiritual director, father Jerónimo Gracián, who was the first to step forward and cut off one of her hands.  

Body parts, then delivered and traded, found their way to disparate locations.  As well as the aforementioned finger in Avila, her right foot and portion of upper jaw are in Rome, her left hand in Lisbon, her right hand, left eye, fingers and scraps of flesh all over Spain, and her right arm and heart in Alba de Tormes, site of another important Teresian shrine.

Though these are part of the visual inheritance of Saint Teresa, another highly significant legacy is the account of her transverberación, English translation…..... ‘transverberation’.   Even the religiously educated Spanish teacher with whom I’ve had a couple of lessons does not know the meaning of this word, which describes the moment, as Teresa asserts, when an angel pierced her heart with a dart: ‘I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire.  It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me.  When he drew it out I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me, and he left me on fire with great love of God.’  Teresa’s mystical experience – one of many claimed by the saint -  has been explained away by some as psychological disturbance and by others as bearing more than passing resemblance to sexual orgasm.  What is clear is that Teresa believed herself to have been potently and definitively transverbed.   Her mystic union with God has been much celebrated in art, notably in works such as Bernini’s sculpture in the Church of Santa Maria della Vottoria, Rome.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini

My curiosity thoroughly aroused, I decided to attend an event at the Convento de la Encarnación. Pushing past a group of teenagers who lunged and sliced the air with their hands in an impromptu self-defence lesson being given by a vigorous young priest with dog collar relaxed to one side, I entered the church.  ‘Are you here for a tourist visit?’ asked a volunteer, ready to usher me instantly back outside.  I stammered that I was here for the evento especial.  Ah, she said.  La misa.  The mass.

Sound of Ulster protestant forebears twirling in their graves.  

Convento de la Encarnación

And mass it was, with eight priests officiating and a long sermon in which transverberación was mentioned multiple times, this being its anniversary, but many words lost to me through the quickness of the Spanish and the reverberación of the PA system.  As the congregation filed to the front to take communion, I stayed put and swivelled round in my seat to stare at the back of the church.  What had seemed large rectangles of black on the back wall were in fact upper and lower level grilles through which ghostly entities could now be seen.  Two priests stood by a barred window that had opened.   From the darkness behind, nuns’ faces appeared, one by one, some thirty of them, each framed for a moment, each a portrait in the perfect head-and-shoulders sized space, their mouths opening, their tongues pushed forward to receive the host. 

As they disappeared back into the gloom, I peered as hard as I could at the floor above but only caught sight of the occasional billowing of robes in unexpected draughts of air.  The sisters had shrunk back into seclusion and anonymity.  Yet they are not the only ones of their kind in this city. Today, August 29th, I’ve come to the Convento de San José, first convent of Discalced Carmelites that Teresa founded in Avila.  Inside the small museum, despite my pleading, I’m not permitted to use my camera, even without flash, and thus am annotating in a notebook the sacred sundries displayed behind glass, while two receptionists carry on with their knitting.  A group of eight people hovering nearby have expressed the wish to go across the courtyard and round the corner to the church.  Both women lay down their wool projects and together get up to act as escort, shutting the door firmly behind them.  

And suddenly, for a long five minutes, I am entirely alone -  the sole custodian of Saint Teresa’s relics.  

Oh the temptation to defy!  Take photos! 

Instead, virtuously, I carry on writing:
  •      saddle used for sitting upon while riding round the countryside, founding new convents
  •       part of a shirt
  •       table
  •       writing box
  •       black coffin with gold lettering in which she lay for nine months after her death, presumably before the macabre butchery took place
  •        jar
  •        signature on piece of paper
  •        cross from a rosary
  •         keys
  •          money
  •          little chest
  •          handkerchief spotted with blood
  •         linen shirt used during her illness and stained with blood
  •         sheet of clean rectangular parchment          
  •      and tambourine!  (I add an exclamation mark.) Looks like an upmarket hamster wheel with silver? engraving on it. Perhaps Teresa still shakes it, keeping time with the click of knitting needles - knit one purl one, knit one purl one, knit one purl one…

Convento de San José

After the women return it is my turn to enter the church.  It is just past 1 pm and bells have been ringing deep within the confines of the convent.  Left again on my own, I sit down in a pew and stare at the substantial spatter of gold across the chancel.  And then, a quiet but unmistakeable rustling starts behind grilles over to the front and left.  They have come, those elusive Carmelite nuns, just to the other side of the wall, and I hear the sound of prayers and responses from voices sweet, sure, close but invisible, separate and disembodied.  I am spellbound and cannot move as the space fills with holy words.

Who are these women?  Why are they here?  What is it like to be locked away from the world?  Eventually I tear myself away from such thoughts, aware that the time for public visits has passed.  Yet as I exit the front door, I find that the heavy iron gates just beyond the entrance steps have been closed and bolted.  

There is a moment of intense panic, for no one is in sight.  I fiddle and work at the huge iron bar that will not budge, smearing my hands with grease that has gone sticky from the heat.  But at last, with one almighty heave, the great bolt moves.  The female voices in the church fade as the gates finally swing open, letting me slip out into the sunlight of the afternoon.

3 August 2016

A Niggling Question of 37%

Now into our second month post the Referendum vote, the Brexit bandwagon rolls on and our brand new prime minister, Theresa May, has been on tour seeing what can be cobbled together by way of agreement or any kind of coherent strategy regarding our supposed departure from the European Union. Like Private Eye editor, Ian Hislop, who stated on Question Time that ‘after an election or a referendum, even if you lose the vote, you are entitled to go on making the argument,’ I am disinclined to simply sit back and watch the show.

I am mightily disgruntled.

'Brexit means Brexit,' we hear ad nauseam. 'The public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it by the back door,' Theresa May said in her leadership bid. That the need for a referendum itself was misjudged, that the arguments in the run-up were frequently misleading, that the simplicity of the two words on its ballot - leave and remain -  disguised a matter of breath-taking complexity with no caveats, no codicils, no other options, no yes buts and no clear plan at all should a leave vote be returned, are things about which I cannot keep silent.  

My continuing quibble lies with May’s phrase 'the public gave their verdict'. Because if you take into account the entire eligible electorate, it turns out that only 37%, I repeat, 37% actually voted to leave the European Union.   

Which looks something like this:

And that is because 13 million electors did not vote (12,949,258 to be precise).

We cannot know for certain how the 13 million might have voted. Yet their silence cannot easily be discounted. A wish to divorce – and let there be no mistake that this intended break-up from the EU is anything prettier -  requires effort and will. You have to get up off your sofa and, as unpleasant as it may be, act on your intentions. You have to file papers. You have to physically append your signature. Failure to do this implies an acceptance of the status quo. Even after such steps are taken, the issuing of a decree nisi is a stop-gap, a provisional notice, giving further time for any objections to be raised before a decree absolute comes into force.  

Voters asked either to leave or remain needed to decide whether to profoundly and irrevocably alter the constitutional, legal and trade arrangements of the UK with the EU, or to continue with the status quo. It is true that a significant number of people - 17,410,742 of them – by placing an x beside Leave on their ballot papers clearly had dismantling in mind. But nearly as high a number (16,141,241) did not give their agreement to separation. Nor, crucially, did the additional 13 million absent from the polling stations. It cannot be construed in any way that their silence implied or continues to imply assent. It does not.

In all, 63% of the eligible electorate did not vote to leave.

True, it is the case in any election that voter turnout usually falls short of 100%. (Which is the main reason, incidentally, that I believe that voting should be made obligatory.)  But this referendum was quite a different kettle of fish to a general election after which we send constituency MPs to act in parliament on our behalf act on a range of matters. 'The complexities of legislation and their intended effects are not feasible subjects of referendums,' says Professor A.C. Grayling in The New European, 'that is why we appoint plenipotentiary representatives to deal with their detail. That is correlatively why, in almost every mature democracy, referendums are sparingly used, and why, in the case of the 23 June referendum, it was explicitly stated to be advisory only.'  

Even if we look at the figures from the actual turnout of election, the 'victory' given to 51.9% is a 'win' only by a hair’s breadth. That the majority required for such a far-reaching decision was not set much higher is another failure of politicians who did not think through the consequences of what they were putting in motion. This same government championed changes to legislation on going on strike (an action much less consequential to the nation as a whole yet still recognised as a serious matter) to require a higher bar than this: the unravelling of complicated treaties and regulations, which may take years.

In the aftermath of the Referendum, the official results of which were so close that we are effectively breathing down each other’s necks, we are all too aware of the divisions revealed  - of old voters versus young voters, of voters in deprived regions versus metropolitan areas, of anti-immigration sentiment versus support for the free movement of peoples, of Northern Ireland and Scotland versus England and Wales.  Of anomalies such as the Leave vote being strongest in areas most economically dependent on the EU.  We lined up behind different agendas. 

It is imperative that our parliament needs to take this into account and act for the UK as a whole. It cannot renege on its duty to safeguard our economy and our wider interests. Yet despite the referendum being advisory only and not legally binding (the European Union Referendum Act 2015 contains no clause to make it instantly law) and despite this fact being as true and stark over a month ago as it is now in August, the Brexit steamroller continues.  

Two women in a café yesterday, happy about the situation, nodded in agreement with each other that 'lots of countries are queueing up to trade with us.' Relaxed and jokey, they chatted away over their frothy cups of capuccino. Yes, on the comfortable and bright bench-seating of Carluccio’s in Walton-on-Thames, things appeared to be holding together well. But so does an air mattress look remarkably like itself for a time after it has been stabbed with a nail, although you can be sure it is leaking and will certainly collapse under your weight if you try and lie on it.

Meanwhile the gung-ho articles spool out from the tabloid press, the Sun already campaigning to bring back the blue passport as a 'symbol of our independence' after Brexit; the Daily Express conducting on online poll  that 'has revealed that 98 per cent of respondents - 3,548 people - want the historic Brexit vote to be enacted now instead of Britain being embroiled in months of talks with Brussels bureaucrats.'

We have the Telegraph soothing us with its 10 European countries for British retirement: living costs, property and pension tax compared though nary a whiff of Brexit consequences; while lawyers on the Freshfields website try valiantly to help businesses creep through the unknown landscape of a post-Brexit UK assisted by timeline diagrams of Brexit by Act of Parliament, Brexit by Royal Prerogative and long lists of bullet points on the WTO Option, The Norwegian Option, The Swiss Option, The South Korean Option, The Turkish Option.

We have the Telegraph's Allister Heath upbeat about future trading partners ,writing shortly after Theresa May took over as Prime Minister that 'it would be a wonderful symbol were we to flesh out our first draft trade deal during her first 100 days, even if only with a small economy.'  The italics are mine, meant to underscore the oddball gleefulness expressed at the prospect of scrabbling around for any pickings in the yard when, up until now in trade terms, we have been well ensconced at the top table. Or to extend the metaphor of the American Michael Moore, who stated we are voluntarily demoting ourselves from the Premier League, it seems to me we are now trying to fix up a Sunday afternoon kick-about in the car park with a handful of bored shoppers and a pantomime horse.

Realities are potentially much more biting, as in earnest reports about a worrying decline in British manufacturing , a plunge in consumer confidence , warnings of recession ,a sharp fall in the services sector.  These are the kind of consequences that John van Reenen, Director of LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, foresaw. He was not taken seriously – of course by the tabloids such as the Sun, the Express and Daily Mail – but also, more alarmingly, also by the BBC who ‘failed to reflect the consensus view of the economics profession on the harm of Brexit,' he says. 'A huge survey of British economists showed that for every one respondent who thought there would be economic benefits from Brexit over the next five years, there were 22 who thought we would be worse off. Yet time and again, there would always be some maverick Leave economist given equal airtime to anyone articulating the standard arguments.’

Meanwhile, with François Hollande telling us the sooner we go the better and Angela Merkel not necessarily wanting to speed up negotiations we have entered an extraordinary chicken-and-egg situation: no assurance on deals until Article 50, or no Article 50 before some kind of assurance on deals. Such flippety ping-pong gives little confidence to business, industry, or non-British EU citizens currently living here. 

In the Financial Times,  David Allen Green argues that Brexiteers have not yet stepped up sufficiently to the task ahead. 'In its rewriting of domestic law and policy and its refiguration of foreign and trade policy, Brexit will be the single biggest exercise by any UK government in peace time - on top of governing a country in a period of austerity with limited public spending and a small majority....If Leave politicians were candid and realistic about the years, sweat and tears ahead, you could believe they were up to it.  But they maintain it is easy, and unless their attitude changes, it is this complacency that will defeat them. Denialism and wishful thinking are not enough.'

No map, no plan, perhaps no compass. Making it up as we go along – oh the jolly surrealism of it all. We live in a UK where the Silly Season started early, on the morning of June 24, whereafter the papers have continued to publish untimely April Fool’s joke after April Fool’s joke.  

Of course, one must continue to be optimistic and to hope that all will come good. For the record, I accept and respect that a large number of my fellow citizens want to leave the EU. I have, in fact, never been the lover of large unwieldy organisations in general or the creaky bureaucracy of the EU in particular. Perhaps, when it comes to trade, we will be able to have our cake and eat it too – which is pretty much the policy of Boris Johnson, whom the Brexiteers had down as their prime ministerial Hair Apparent. Now, as Foreign Secretary, he is doing the rounds of embassies and chancelleries, dissociating himself from previous howlers and insults and abandoning, it can only be prayed, his schoolboy short-trousered banter in favour of statesmanship and diplomacy.  

But what is the engine behind all this, distracting us from other pressing domestic and global matters of security and terrorism, energy supply, the need for renewed tolerance, the environment? 

‘The British people have made their decision and now everyone should be focused on getting behind that and making a success of Brexit,’ said a spokeswoman delivering the Prime Minister's instructions to several peers in the House of Lords who were ‘plotting’ to delay the triggering of Article 50.

But, I wonder, did ‘the British people’ truly make their decision? This is my sticking point and where I am so uneasy. Did June 23 actually deliver an iron-clad mandate?  Despite gloating prose in the tabloids that would have us believe we have already slammed the door on the EU, 29 million adults on the electoral roll have given no such unequivocal order.  

No.  Brexit, as envisioned on 23 June, is by no means a fait accompli.  The fat lady ain’t sung yet.