Friday, 20 November 2009

The Gardener and Death

A Persian nobleman:

This morning, my gardener pale from fright,
‘Master, one moment, please’, came running inside.

‘In yonder rose-bush I was cutting shoot after shoot
And when I turned and looked, grim Death there stood.

I was appalled and by the other way I fled,
But still descried his hand casting a threat.

Master, your horse, and with godspeed let me ride
To Ispahan, which I may reach ere fall of night.’

This afternoon – long after he had sped -
In the park of cedars, Death it was I met.

‘Why,’ thus I asked, while he stood waiting there,
‘Did you, this morn, give my servant such a scare?’

Smilingly came his reply: ‘No threat, for sure, it was
That sent your gardener fleeing. Surprised I was

To find, in early morn, here still at work a man
Who, this same evening, I am to take in Ispahan.’

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, 'De Tuinman en de Dood' by P.N.van Eyck (1887-1954)
who took the theme from Jean Cocteau's 'Le grand écart'.

Compare a different translation by Kate Ashton which, afterwards, I happened upon at a blog called 'Books Do Furnish A Room'.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Saint George - 14. The Dragon's Bride

Who knows how many times the corrupting breath had been drifting across the town already, saturating its alleys and invading its dwelling-places. In any case, the sad fact must be told that everybody craved an escalation of suspense.
And so it came to pass that the Council took a decision even more monstrous than the monster itself. As it was providing the public with so much pleasure, they decided to treat the beast from now on to the tenderest titbit they could procure, a virgin of between twelve and eighteen. All of these should presently be registered and every time, whom it had to be would be chosen by lot.
This decision engendered a festive mood all over town. It promised a world of new, impetuous sensations. Not only because disposing of a girl - the more so, when she was pretty - would have a far more smashing impact but besides, the erotic element was to enter the scene. Shudders wouldn't be merely running down the spine, henceforth, the entire body would be involved. The deepest layer of feelings was burrowed.
And imagine the possibilities!
Would the beast be sensitive to feminine beauty? Would it approach its meal in the manner of a suitor?
For the first time, there was an opportunity to descry something of the inner beast, that it might give away a glimpse of its soul.
And the girls, how might they proceed? Would they play nice to him to soften his mood? And would he let them have their way, at least for a while? Or would they be screaming their heart out?
The prisoners always had been offered naked. With girls, this wasn't suitable. But how then? In their plain clothes? Or in a festive gown? Like a bride?
And would he peel it off beforehand? He could hardly eat them dress and all. Some remembered calling him 'the Convivant', in the early days. In this context, that would obtain a different meaning entirely. What an opportunity for the beast to put on a great show!
And there was another side to it as well. For the first time, sensations were no longer restricted to the mere protagonists. To the dragon's bride, as she was presently called, there was also her family. Her father and mother, the brothers and sisters and possibly, a fiancé. How would they bear themselves? To spy on their demeanour, wouldn't that be a special sensation? All that was happening within such a family now became a public affair to which the whole community was setting its heart on.

It was further decided that lots would be drawn on Sundays so that the family appointed by fate could spend six full days on preparations and the amplest of partings. It goes without saying that during these days such a family would be for ever in the public eye and that a fiancé, if any, would be under constant scrutiny from every perspective conceivable.
For these closest relatives the most outstanding places were reserved on the grandstand and by this arrangement, not only were they procured the best view of the spectacle below but also could they themselves be watched even better by everybody else.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Saint George - 13. Curtain-call

Don't ask for the scenes among the prisoners at drawing lots. The emotions of their relatives simply got lost in the entire community's mammoth shudder that reduced everything else to sheer insignificance. Should this be called a mass hysteria?
Nor ask for details of the performance itself. Their fleeing, the attempts at resistance, their injuries and when at last they were crunched, what was to be heard thereof.
As of today, this would only evoke disgust.
Incidentally, there had been one who didn't flee at all, who didn't resist and never uttered a sound. He just stayed down, without a stir, as if saying 'come and eat me,' like a bread roll.
A hoot of scorn went up from the audience. For a moment the monster stood undecided and by its next move captivated all hearts. It looked around, went to a coppice nearby, broke off a bough and sharpened the torn end with its fangs. It then returned to the crouching figure and laid the weapon down within his reach. Quick as lightning the man now jumped at his last opportunity, or whatever he thought it to be, seized the stick and stormed the dragon, aiming at its eye. Poor soul, to the other he meant nothing but a sparring partner. However, it all but saved the show.

When the last prisoner had been consumed, though, a new decision had to be made. How to proceed from here on? To fall back on sheep was doomed from the start. Not a living soul would turn up at such a turn off. To let it starve then or, even worse, to insidiously waylay the beast and seek its destruction by joint assault? This also, was out of the question. For at present the monster had become a popular figure, it procured the top entertainment of the week and when only properly fed it wouldn't harm anyone.
And wasn't it even beautiful! The bright colours of its head, the sheen on its claws and scales, the agile movement of its armoured body. It should be kept safe, this much was settled too.
Besides, it appeared that people no longer felt ashamed of their feelings, that they dared openly confess to how luscious they found these shivers running down their spine, men as much as women. During an offering, it sometimes happened that by their common mood the population as a whole was elevated to a state of unity, which a pious congregation may now and then reach under influence of an inspiring pastor.
They even went so far as to grant the beast a curtain-call for acts of striking cruelty. From pure elation, they couldn't forgo exchanging glances often still radiant, while on their way home.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Dan Brown - The Lost Symbol

I just finished Dan Brown's latest, The Lost Symbol. Three nights of terrific reading, and reviving old memories of the 1960s and 70s 'taser' novels by Colin Wilson, like The Mind Parasites and The Space Vampires.
It's all there, Masons, underground passageways, demons and darkness, as well as the idea of putting at work the powers of the mind in lock-step with others to move mountains or, in the case of Wilson, no less than the moon itself!
I liked all of Dan Brown's cliff-hangers, but at their austere and breath-taking level of suspense, the particular qualities of the bogey is what's making the difference for me.
In his first novel, Digital Fortress, the bad guy is still a scientist, rather a stereotype of the over-ambitious, whereas Deception Point featured the blood-hounding Mute, Angels and Demons had its sadist Arab and The Da Vinci Code the hampered Monk.
Though the three of them are mere vehicles of violence, answering to a secret Master, the Mute is just a hired killer and the Monk a pathetic freak, wheras the Arab, indeed, is an embodiment of Evil, doing the job to satisfy his own pathological cravings and thus, a genuine creep. Therefore, I preferred Angels and Demons beyond the other novels on behalf of this convincingly spine-chilling character.

The demon of The Lost Symbol, though a freak of his own merit and a ruthless killer to that, equals the Arab in occult knowledge and malice, but beats him by far on the application of modern gadgetry and psychological trickery. Besides, he's self-employed. The disclosure of his true identity is a moment of shocking revelation.
The narrative starts with the familiar pattern of the telephone call at an ungodly hour, the rush by plane to a place of renown and the confrontation with a ghastly crime, shrouded in mystery. What is of note, however, the meeting of the hero and the local heroine-to-be remains long overdue. Whereas in the earlier thrillers, they're growing more and more close, so that at the last page they can't wait to spend the night as close as can be, in The Lost Symbol they happen to be old friends, who do embrace, incidentally, under emotional duress for support and consolation, but never in a way as to kindle the flame of passion. It may be their age.
Even the demon has taken precautions to avoid temptations of the flesh, a fact that doesn't harm his menacing powers, but puts him at a disadvantage with his Arab counter-part in Angels and Demons, whose sexual prowess, indeed, proved a convincing tool for rousing utter dread and desperation.
So, in the end, the only thing stirring is not the magic stick, but solely the spirit.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Saint George - 12. The Turn

People get used to anything. With time, everything loses its lustre, as happened here. Despite the monster's best effort to keep the audience spellbound, after the umpteenth sheep, interest really started to wane. Concourse to the stands kept decreasing to the great displeasure of those who were pocketing fat rents and of the sellers of lemonade and sweets there as well. Together, they reflected on new gimmicks.
One day, their faction - for in the council they had formed their own faction - brought in the following proposition.
'Why,' thus asked their spokesman,
'why are we to offer a precious sheep every single week, an innocent creature that is providing us food, whereas inside our prisons we keep a number of creatures not as innocent whom we ourselves must feed, whose very misdoings we remunerate with free board and lodging.
Whatever prevents us from exchanging them for the sheep! Thus, we'll dispose of them in a honourable fashion. As in each case they'll spare us a sheep, we enable them to wholly or partly square their due.
What we propose is a simple act of justice. Thereafter, our town will be free again of crime, even as before, and their empty lodgings we can put to a different use.'
Upon the real motive - to raise the yield from stands to former levels and, if possible, even to increase it - no words were wasted. On giving it away, they expected to meet with strong, moral opposition. However, this proved a gross miscalculation.
By the magistrate who, as mentioned before, possessed a major share in the stands the plan was welcomed with approval and others as well, disguised their real motives. The welfare of the state was all they cared for, or so they said. In reality, their motive was lust after a spectacle even more sensational by far.
Thus, the proposition of the stand-owners' faction was passed with a large majority of votes. Only the junior councillor, seeing with dread which way his own two proposals were leading, still tried to raise his voice in disapproval but this time, nobody was inclined to hear him out. The proclamation of the council's decision caused a general rebound and the next Saturday no stand was left empty though fees had doubled.
To the slaughtering of sheep everybody was used from childhood but now, a man was at stake, a human being just like oneself, whose anxiety and pain were all but empathetic, which made the horrors all the more exciting and the excitement all the more lustful.
When the monster, on that very Saturday, encountered a tied man instead of its usual sheep, there wasn't the slightest trace of amazement in its bearing, nor of hesitation. Rather, it seemed to have anticipated this turn.
It put on quite a show, alternating bites with growls and grins and at times, by a coarse laugh at which it raised its head heavenward and widely distended its jaws.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Monday, 7 September 2009

Saint George - 11. The Breath of the Beast

Strange as it may sound, between the monster and the crowd a bond evolved as between an actor and his audience. The at first altogether guileless behaviour of the animal developed into a genuine performance. At times, it played straight to the gallery, just showing off, making inane leaps, snapping in the air as if to crunch a bird in flight and playing cat-and-mouse with its prey for a while.
This latter quirk engendered a novelty. It was decided to extend the tether. In that way, the sheep would be given ampler dodging space so that it could put up a more interesting resistance. And this, in its turn, brought about another escalation, a revolution almost, to wit, it appeared that one sheep reacted completely different than the other. One of a flock a sheep may be, in these moments each animal was on its individual mettle.
For the first time now, the victim's behaviour and emotions became involved in the spectacle. It wasn't all about the strange and bewildering beast anymore, the plain little sheep became an object of fascination as well.
And next time, the tether would be eased off some more.

In this way they learned to live with the beast and there was no one to feel unhappy for it. On the contrary. The weekly show - if it be allowed to call it such - introduced to their minds and conversations a liveliness so far unknown and was both surprising and exciting each and every time to such an extent that everyone was longing for it the whole week over.
On going home, often people were heard saying 'Oh, how marvellous he was, never better' and 'But the sheep wasn't so bad either.'
This seemed the more remarkable as through the week daily life continued in the same old rut. Supposedly, the beast needed this whole time span to digest its meal. It was imagined as lying contentedly or sleeping perchance, in its subaqueous hidey-hole.
So, it was with a tinge of amazement indeed, when in the twilight of a late evening a shepherd who had been looking for a stray lamb for quite a while, heading for home along the pond, became aware of the monster's head in the centre of it, or rather only its skull, or rather still, the part of its head where its nostrils were. And what besides he saw was that from these openings jets of dark steam were spurting forth with great force.
The man quickly absconded and once home, didn't fail to realize that at the prevailing wind this steam was bound for the town straightaway and possibly, would be dispersed all over it. Although it upset him in no small way, he durst not mention it to anyone, afraid to make a fool out of himself.
Now, it is written in the chronicles of the monks that the breath of the beast was lethal. This can't be true, for during this entire stretch no one in the town died. Only to us, who know the sequel of the story, the true effect of the breath is apparent, namely, it didn't so much as kill people, it was corrupting their character.
We must assume that time and again, with favourable winds the monster let its breath drift across the town and had taken this up long before the shepherd had witnessed it.
The continuation of this tale unmistakably points in this direction.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Saint George - 10. Facing the music

Nothing in this world remains stationary, nor so did standing arrangements. The sheer horror that on first encounter had struck people dumb, steadily subsided each time and in consequence, silence was observed ever less. What had been feared, that the monster would baulk at so many staring eyes and turn back in fright, it didn't happen. On the contrary, it seemed rather to like it. At times, while proceeding, it raised its head to the gallery as if to say, 'stop hiding, will you. I do still see you!' and at once distorted its terrible jaws into something that might pass for a grin.
The public took this for a challenge and it wasn't long ere the boldest - youngsters, of course - dared from their hiding places and as they stood watching openly it didn't in the least seem to bother the monster. Also, when shouted at by a foolhardy lad, it only raised its grinning head.
'He knows we are here, already. We need not hide from him anymore!' became the new watchword and those in authority weren't slow to act on the consequences. Mandatory silence was abolished and instead of the covert gallery, they built open tiers rising to considerable height. Watching on the sly was over. Overnight, visibility became a matter of national importance and every tall building with a view, either public or private, was adapted accordingly.
Following the authorities, which from now on were levying entrance fees on their tiers, the owners of well situated premises started to rent their rooftops to spectators and were doing nicely by it. From this instant, financial interests were attached to the monster. The cost of the sheep became a side issue.

Now, one would think the eagerness of watching an ever repeating event might dwindle with time, but nothing was more beside the truth. Though all it came to was ought but the eating of a sheep, still, in the totality of events there was a mounting degree of suspense. Every next time the spectacle was enriched, at least by expectation itself. As soon as opinion prevailed that the beast seemed to appreciate the presence of a large audience, it received a boisterous welcome on arrival and still today, no one can tell whether it be hooting or cheering.
From this, someone got the idea to grace the offering fest - for this aspect gained in prominence ever more strongly - with music. A small orchestra was quickly composed and now, it so happened that the beast synchronized its appearance with the starting of the music as if listening for the tune of the orchestra rather than for the rumbling of its stomach. In this way, its arrival could be timed at will and of course, this proved a major boon to the whole enterprise.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Saint George - 9. The Event

The goal of the enterprise had been definitely achieved. The whole left wing as well, went home in the belief: 'against this monster there's no avail.' On all sides, its body and limbs were shielded by scales as if by steel armour and these, in their turn, were protected by a system of blades and spikes. And those tremendous nostrils, who knows what deadly venom might belch from them when it mattered. Its movements in general were sluggish but, if necessary, it could swipe with lightning speed. A sudden jump by the poor little sheep had revealed as much.
'We'd better learn to live with it,' was the unanimous conclusion. There followed an overall reconciliation and thereby unity was restored. In line with the junior councillor's opinion, to many of them this seemed what mattered most.

Now, at all ease, the second part of the plan could be implemented, to gradually remove the offering place back to the pond's vicinity. Unexpectedly, this met with strong resistance of the population. Were the lookout facilities, constructed with so much effort and at such cost, just to be demolished forthwith?
This argument was proffered foremost but behind it some deeper motives emerged. There were such as to frankly confess that they simply loved the horrors. Artists considered the beast highly inspiring. Painters, going a step further, declared it to be of exceptional beauty, a knight amongst animals. Never had they observed reflections of light thus enticing. To the Surrealists among them it was nothing short of 'gefundenes Fressen', a godsend.
Scientists joined in the protest as well. They wished to have a closer look into this phenomenon, as they preferred to call the beast. The ethically inclined couldn't stop pointing at the beneficial consequences of its first contemplation and considered it quite possible the effects might be lasting.
In short, resistance became so overwhelming that the council decided to leave things as they actually were and thus, the offering just under Silene's wall became a weekly event.
Not during deliberations, nor at the final decision was any word breathed on the perpetual agony of the sheep.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Friday, 28 August 2009

Saint George - 8. Revelation

Fortunately, the leaders of the factions didn't cling to their convictions yet as rigidly as to miss the appeal to reason in this speech and so the proposition was passed unanimously. And chances of success looked promising, for over the next few weeks the ever shifted victim was promptly devoured. Utter care, as had been recommended, was observed in the arrangements. No suspicion should be aroused in the beast, none whatsoever.
In consequence, it was strictly forbidden to anyone to be on the ramparts or walls during the feeding. Just one man - and the scheme's promoter was a natural choice - was allowed to follow the course of the experiment from a hidden observation post and only when its goal of 'right under the wall' was achieved, the people would be given permission to fill the walls, roofs and towers in due silence to be confronted at once with the solution in all its clarity. If granted prematurely, chances were the old feud would flare anew by lack of substantial evidence. Also for this reason our observer wrapped himself in deep silence on what he had seen.
At last, after months, the proper day arrived. Word came that on the next Saturday every one would see from close by the creature that for so long had engrossed their thoughts, and that it would reveal itself in its entirety and in one of its essential acts.
It would be a day of revelation.
In this same week, a long gallery was built on top of the section of the town wall that offered a view of the sensational action. Moreover, protruding balconies and upper windows, roofs and even towers were reshaped to such a fashion that spectators could watch the arrival and proceedings of the monster without being seen by it themselves. Every one claimed his share in the sighting.
Thus, on that Saturday morning, the whole of Silene had mounted their posts, camouflaged so well that someone unfamiliar with the town wouldn't have noticed anything special on its outside. There was nobody but had rested his gaze for a while on the little sheep below. On its tether is was grazing peacefully. That it never showed a sign of foreboding was what gave people a special thrill.
The mandatory silence was not observed, emotions were too highly strung for that. Silence did fall, however, at the appearance of the terrible beast from the distance and persisted as long as it remained within view. Even during the calm and ruthless quelling of the desperate struggle and the deliberate shattering of the prey no groan, no cough was heard, not even a sigh. Only when the monster with bulging belly had disappeared from the scene, people drew breath again. Its frightening appearance had pre-empted the bid for silence.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Saint George - 7. The Scheme

Brothers, let us be reasonable. Instead of making life a burden to each other, we'd better scrutinize calmly the bone of contention that is dividing our nation. On the point at issue we are of one mind, the sheer looks of our pond-squatter. Here lies no cause for drawing knives. It is not this that's driving us apart. But if not this, what then?
One faction
- and on this he turned to the right wing of the council - implicitly believes what the guards told us about the monster's appearance. In consequence, let us call them 'Believers'. The other faction - and now he turned to the left wing - refuses to accept the reports on good faith, yea, deems it not overly improbable that they don't answer to reality. Therefore, let them be baptized 'Disbelievers', or rather 'Unbelievers', and rightly so.
Now, my fellow councillors, you will agree with me, that pounding each other's skulls for the sheer image of a creature that one faction saw only in part and the other faction not at all, would be utter foolishness. And, if even possible, the more foolish, indeed, because the solution is so obvious. We should examine the truth of the matter, we should arrange for the beast to be observed. To see for yourself, indeed, compares to nothing.
So, let us consider how we can make this happen.
It will not be easy. The Believers are still terror-stricken. They're constantly living in fear. And the Unbelievers, they too, dare not venture out of town at the hour of offering. Maybe, they fear to be counted as sheep?"
he added with a mischievous smile.
"Well, brothers,"
he went on, "I have reflected on this question beforehand, and I'm here to propound to you my plan.
We should move the place where the victim is offered in the direction of our town, gradually. When we do so with care, without giving him the impression it's done on purpose, so that the beast may come to suspect us of luring him into a trap, we may succeed in bringing him under our walls close enough for us to watch him in action safely and at ease.
Forthwith, it will be clear which of both factions is in the right and thereby harmony will be restored to our people. What is more, we shall know at once how to behave toward it, whether we'll be able to rid ourselves of it, or - when its looks prove so dreadful as to deny our human powers any chance of success - whether we'd better get used to it living in our presence. In case of the latter we can remove the offering back to its present place as to spare us the weekly fright of so ghastly a spectacle.
But whatever the result of this investigation, the perilous discord from which we at present are suffering will be healed. And that, in my opinion, is the most important of all."
English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Saint George - 6. The Rift

And now the improbable happened. This nation, where peace and love had reigned supreme since time immemorial, split up into two fiercely warring factions; those who believed the official reports unconditionally and their opponents who, indeed, derided those ever more. The anxiety for the monster they considered all but hype and found it nothing short of ridiculous therefore to part with a precious sheep once every week.
A community that has never experienced a disturbance of its harmony and is completely unprepared for it, feels utterly inconvenienced and powerless when it, nevertheless, occurs. There were clashes. Some blood was spilled. Already, all kinds of material were gathered in sundry places for raising barricades, if push came to shove.
For the first time ever there were people who used the general confusion as a cover for mischief. Chaos is always the well-head to crime. As yet, the Silenians hadn't come so far as to be blind to the difference between a factious row and a crime, and though they failed to restore their former unity, evil-doers were run in and locked up, just as was known to be the case in other towns.
What was indeed remarkable of this whole tumult was that it never raised the question as to the nature of the beast at all. It was all and only about its appearance. Whether it possessed a spirit benevolent or evil, nobody seemed to care about, nor did anyone feel so much as concern.
Subject to the rules of polarization and escalation, the contrary opinions diverged ever wider and their partisans attacked each other ever more fiercely and brutally. A mutual crippling of trade was looming and society teetered on the brink of civil war.
Who saw this most clearly, and therefore deplored the state of affairs the more deeply, was the junior councillor, and just like he had warded off the earlier menace, so, by his words, he brought deliverance from this perilous plight.
At the council - where dissension ran rampant to such a degree that, aside from crime equally hated by all, decision-making had come to a complete standstill - his reasoning went as follows.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Saint George - 5. Rumblings of discord

The junior councillor seemed to have been spot-on, for further developments complied to his very words. The following Saturday scouts found the remnants of a newly-eaten sheep. A fixed spot was chosen, not far from the pond, where henceforth the victim would be tethered firmly to a pole. This marked the beginning of new circumstances to which they accustomed themselves rather quickly and in which they acquiesced. The more so as there was no sign of the monster for the rest of the week, as had been predicted. So, everything seemed much the same as before and everyone carried on his usual activities. Each time the sheep's value was made good on its owner from the common means.
Whether they had entered upon an era of greater happiness, for the present, there was no sign of this. What did happen, however, was a faint anxiety and awe entering their minds, and above all, curiosity. Although nobody, after that first encounter, had ever seen it again, the mysterious pond-dweller still took part of people's thoughts. Its appearance was greatly embellished. The trail from the pond to the sacrificial spot, standing out ever starker, inspired them with a certain respect that kept them from crossing it. Everyone was giving a wide berth to the offering place.
Whereas nobody could muster the courage to spy on its feasting, yet a desire just to see the monster was ever gaining in strength, especially amongst youngsters. For as the day of the first fright was receding into the past, so doubts were mounting about the particulars of its appearance. Voices were heard saying that the beast probably would underwhelm expectations, that its description had been a product rather of shock and imagination than of observation - some even hinting at mass suggestion and mass hysteria - and that this beast to which the whole community was rendering honours all but divine, after all might be anything but a plain and simple crocodile. For the first time in the history of this society graffiti showed on its walls as the bearers of what still was deemed unfit for uttering openly.
The former sentries, those who at the time had manned the guarding posts, the eye-witnesses and reporters, together with their constituencies felt deeply disgraced by these slurs and defended themselves vigorously.
"As you are so much bolder than we are, go and look for yourself," they retorted.
But nobody dared.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Saint George - 4. The Councillor

The most eloquent of the guardsmen acted as their spokesman and from his words the entire council turned an ever whiter shade of pale. In the ensuing spell of total bewilderment a turmoil erupted of disorderly and tumultuous discussions, which the king as the council's chair attempted to stem in vain. Until, eventually, the junior councillor, a bright mind who had been admitted to the council for his strong level-headedness, raised his voice and succeeded in dampening the raging feelings by the following address.
Brothers, let us be reasonable. We all must eat, and so must every animal. Being alive, not one escapes the need of having to eat. That the beast observed by our guardsmen was getting hungry after it gradually had disposed of all the fish in the pond, and that it looked out for an alternative, in this it obeyed the Law of Nature. We can't cast this in its teeth.
If we are to believe the description of it rendered to us, it appears to be a beast that may do us great harm, yea, that can turn our entire community destitute. But, as yet, it hasn't done anything of the kind at all. It never did as much as crook a hair of anybody, let alone pull one. By all means, it may as well be a benignant creature whose horrific appearance and dreadful voice are but defensive expedients. Such are the ways of the animal world. Well, even amongst men there are those who hide a too tender heart behind stern looks and a gruff attitude.
If this be our starting-point - and indeed, why shall we, at once, suppose anything more evil - we may reason along the following lines.
Over the last period, the beast apparently felt a need for stepping ashore at three consecutive Saturdays. In between it was lying low. From this, we may infer that one sheep can appease its appetite for a whole week. When we offer it a sheep at every Saturday we will not be bothered by it.
Fifty-two sheep in a year, it's something, together, we can afford easily. There are many nations having deities to whom they are obliged to sacrifice quite a lot more animals to propitiate them.
Let's see it this way. One sheep a week for disaster to be averted. We may fare even better. Suppose, in this way, the mysterious creature is won over and becomes a boon to the whole of our community. It may even be a god assuming an ever so horrible shape only to try our mettle. Who knows, by his doing an era of unprecedented happiness may dawn upon us.
Therefore, beware, lest we make him loathe us by grudging him his food or by panicking.
This speech had the intended effect. The council decided to abstain from immediate action and to prudently reconnoitre the pond's surroundings on the following morning.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Monday, 10 August 2009

Saint George - 3. The Siege

Exactly one week after it had plucked a first sheep from the flock, another fell a victim, also during the night, and judging from the remains, mauled in the selfsame manner as the first. So, though this be a monster, there was method in it.
In consequence, a decision was taken to lay a full-scale siege to the pond. Never again this brute should be given a chance to put a paw ashore. Around the pond a ring of guard posts was set up to be manned night and day by armed bands of the strongest and bravest men.
For a full week nothing happened. The guardsmen were growing weary. Already some of them, in the rash supposition that their mere presence sufficed to scare the beast, brought dice to their post.
Until, on the morning of the seventh day, the beast raised its head above the water. And some head it was!
A head that was all jaws. When they opened wide - as the beast was doing - they showed double rows of fangs in both the upper and lower part, so horrific that whoever saw them, presently realized that whatever was caught between them would be successively crushed, shattered and pulverized.
The palate resembled red plush. The eyes were placed in the upper lip, as were the nostrils. From the latter spurted two jets of brown smoke. Evidently, the beast could aim them, for now they spouted straight up and then they skimmed the water. All there was to be seen of the body was covered in scales shining like armour-plates with high, razor-edged crests in between.
In dead silence, the men stood gaping at the apparition while it too kept silent. But once it made its sound roll across the water, the whole body took to flight. That sound lacked anything human or animal, neither shrieking nor roaring; it rang like the laughing of a collapsing house.
No man, not even the bravest, remained behind, dared to wait for the beast - if it would approach the bank - to raise more of itself from the water. Its head alone had nipped any thought of resistance in the bud. Panic was raging, a unanimous save-who-can behind the walls of their town. Here their excited stories were causing a major alarm. Drums were rolled and the council was summoned with all speed.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Monday, 3 August 2009

Saint George - 2. The Pond

It began when the catch of fish from the big pond started to decline, on the cause of which nobody was any the wiser. Mortality it couldn't be, for dead fish were nowhere afloat. Climate and water level had remained the very same and to the appearance or taste of the fish caught there wasn't anything of note either.
People were left completely in the dark and the worse part of it was, the decline didn't halt. After some time the catch had dropped to half its former size and later on to only a quarter.
Now, there were fishermen who thought they noticed, at times, strange whirlings in the water, stirring the surface from below. Musing on its unfathomable depth, some fancied their pond might have become connected to wide, underground water areas; that the mighty currents in them could sometimes be seen at the upper side, and that by these same currents the greater part of their fish had been sucked into the subterranean.
Until one day, at just such a whirling, a couple of fishermen saw a crest of giant fins rising from the water. This, at once, explained the enigma. There lived in the pond a formidable fish that was devouring all the other fish, fattening itself more and more by this action.
All efforts to catch the 'Convivant', as before long it was commonly called, proved useless.
It must have been lying low or hiding in a cave and it appeared to be very watchful, for every time the men went after it, the pond was still as death. Eventually, their catch of normal fish ran down to such a trifle, that the fishermen might as well stay home to attend to different chores, to mind the sheep, for instance. Having fish for dinner grew into a memory, even in the royal family.
This plight, to which they had somewhat resigned themselves, suddenly changed as another sensational event befell them.
One day a few shepherds, setting out for their flocks early in the morning, happened on the remnants of a freshly devoured sheep. Slivers of bone, bloody tufts of wool, and the extremities: ears, tail, and hooflets were found scattered on the turf, testifying both silently and eloquently of the accomplished fact. From that frightful spot led a peculiar track, a furrow in the turf, as if a heavy sack had been dragged along the ground, and on either side of it the regular imprint of a huge, crooked claw.
After swift deliberation the shepherds decided to follow the trail and how amazed they were and how alarmed when they saw it headed straight for the pond and disappeared into it.
In hot haste they returned to the town, reported their findings, and great was the consternation they engendered by their tale.
The voracious dweller of the pond had never been a mere fish, but rather a beast that could move on land as well and by all means nimbly enough to grab a sheep. Now that, apparently, no more fish was left to satisfy it, they should live in dread for their sheep. A vital common interest was at stake.
New efforts to catch the monster, executed with ampler means and manpower, again proved futile. The pond stayed stock-still. In its unreachable refuge the creature, obviously, lay digesting its prize.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Monday, 27 July 2009

Saint George - 1. The Oasis

When the Roman Empire had reached its greatest expansion, it lost its fancy for further growth.
Every area that promised gains had been conquered and incorporated. The rest of the world consisted of desolate waste lands not worth development, nor conquest. Still, people were living there and as no one coveted their territory, they enjoyed long stretches of peaceful existence and it showed. Unencumbered by political passions, hubris and self-assertion, characteristic of natives of great, powerful states, they took for granted that the only sense of life was to be merry and love each other much.
Of course, even they needed some level of organisation, but it never amounted to very much, because without high roads a more extended domain would readily prove hard to control and roads in those days were a monopoly of the Romans.
So, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, there existed a lot of small nations. For the greater part they were led by a headman, sometimes called a king, within the confines of natural borders, be they mountain ranges, swamps, primeval forests, tracts of water or of sand.

Lybian oasis In the Libyan desert, that stretches from Egypt to the west, there was another such little realm. It all but occupied one of the larger oases and was named Silenia after its capital and only city, Silene, where also resided its king.
That it was surrounded by walls recalled the days when at times a band of Bedouin savages or Berbers would pass by, but ever since Egypt had become a Roman province this didn't happen anymore.
The only foreigners still around were Roman border patrols and these were always welcomed with hospitality and in peace.
Any isolated, tiny realm must be able to provide for its own wants, of course, as was the case here also. Beyond the oasis' natural yields a thriving trade of sheep-farming produced meat, milk and clothing, and besides, near the capital there happened to be a big, rich fish-pond, the depth of which was still for any one to guess. As it was highly valued for its contribution to the food supply, the whole population felt a magical reverence for it as well, because they believed this pond to be the ancient origin of the oasis itself.
How much time since had passed and how many royal dynasties had ruled Silenia from its earliest days nobody knew. History books were unknown, and indeed, what else could have been on record but that they were happy and loved each other much.
That's exactly why every one did remember so well the events that will be the subject of this story and which pulled off this whole affair.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Dragon is in the details

"When the Roman Empire had reached its greatest expansion, it lost its fancy for further growth."

This is the first sentence of a short story, "Sint Joris" [Saint George], by a maverick Dutch writer from the last century. He called himself 'Belcampo', Italian for his surname, and he certainly was an eccentric. Being born in 1902, he studied law to become a notary after his father, but he never practised the profession, as the times - the thirties - were difficult. Instead of going on the dole, and feel miserable, he hitch-hiked to Italy, and made it to the north of Sicily, providing for his livelihood and lodging by making pencil portraits of the people he met, wisening up quite a lot on the subject of the human psyche along the road.
After the war [WWII] he studied medicine, and settled as a village GP, and after a decade became a students' physician at Groningen University, until his retirement in 1967.

He was a lifelong philosopher. Coming home from his Italian adventure, in his mid-thirties, he had his mind already made up about the great picture of the natural world and that of men and their passions, but it took him till after his retirement to put it to paper. As an individualist, he developed his personal philosophy, and called it 'belcampism', for, of course, none of the other philosophies to date fitted his idiosyncratic sense of life and humour. According to his 'The Philosophy of belcampism' [1972], the essence of human life, in extension of the old adage 'to live, and let live', is the attempt 'to live pleasantly, and let live pleasantly'. The rest he considered hot air.
Though, possibly, something is lost in this translation, and his motto should rather be read: 'To thrive, and let thrive'.

Belcampo died in 1990. He left an oeuvre of scores of short stories and tales of a mostly bizarre nature, written in a peculiar, rather antiquated style, but always intriguing and entertaining for the sake of their slightly ironic, seemingly self-evident, but mind-twisting narrative.

Take the sentence on top of this post. At first sight, it seems little short of ludicrous, and if so, it is meant to be. How should the Empire have fathomed, that it had reached its greatest expanse, when it did?
But before you decide, see the follow up: St. George - 1.

It's good news week - 1

Poor Gordon Brown, still trudging on, and few to appreciate it. After the landslide defeat of his Labour candidate in the Norwich Nord by-election by a 27-year old Tory beauty-with-brains, his MP backbenchers have stalled their chain-saws half-way into the supports of his ivory tower, before making off for their summer hide-outs.

"We've got work to do to prepare for the autumn," the Prime Minister said. "I'm determined to spend plenty of time with my children during my break from Westminster."
But he also stressed that he would remain focused on the country, currently facing the challenges of swine flu and recession.
"My attention is focused on what I can do for the country. I will not be diverted," he said.

Poor children. When was the last time they enjoyed his undiverted attention? However, when you ponder the dire straits the UK has sailed into with Gordon's full attention span, maybe, his children will be better off without it.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Feeling free

Summertime, for many of us the time to go on holiday, and slake the bonds of work and everyday life, a time to feel free.
Feeling free doesn't depend on being on a holiday, of course. The elation freedom invokes may rise from any combination of circumstances, great and small, like taking part in a ritual, or slowly exhaling the smoke of a cigarette, while watching the sun set. It's always an experience of intensity, an upsurge of well-being, joy, and relaxation, and one you're not likely to forget.
I can feel free, when after a swim I'm lying in the sun-stoved sand of a Mediterranean beach, and for a while let the grains slip from my half-closed fist. On another day I may have a fit of freedom from sharing a very juicy peach with someone I love. These are the small joys of life, which can be reiterated as long as a sunny beach is at hand, or a sappy fruit, and someone to share it with.

However, these things can't be done over and over without destroying the thrill. There must be an element of coincidence in it, a taste of surprise, a sudden realisation that everything is just perfect, your state of mind, the person you're with, or without, and the ambiance. Then, a surge from within will lift you up, and make you soar like an eagle.

To be free, for one it is sky-diving, for an other sitting under a tree, no obligations, or eating out with friends. So, bar the obvious, what happens to be your special brand of free?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

What the world needs now is ...

On June 11, 2009, Dmitry Orlov gave this stunning presentation at the New Emergency Conference in Dublin. On Peak Oil, there's no one like him by far.
However, I wouldn't sync with Sharon [Astyk], who felt inclined to "do Orlov" because of it, but yet, in a way, we're raking the same bed.

It's all about the gooey stuff.
When there was enough oil for everybody, world GDP kept growing steadily. But now production of the stuff is stalling, even declining, which means world GDP must fall, as it has been doing for the past year. As the economies of the developed nations consequently prepare for a nosedive, banks will not lend, how ever much the Central Banks are trying to slosh their funny money into their near-empty vaults. And why should they, if world trade has been dropping off a cliff, as is housing, and default risks are soaring? Liquidity is not the problem, the problem is a dearth of creditworthy borrowers.
As Colin Campbell, founder of the ASPO News Letter, so aptly explained as early as in 1998, crude is the root of all economic growth. No more oil, no more growth; no more growth, a systemic financial crisis, with in its wake, eventually, desintegration of society.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Heading for home

For people who don't shrink from walking, the name of Santiago de Compostela has an ever-alluring ring. It is, and has been for ages, the ultimate destination for many a pilgrim and soul seeker. The town is situated in Galicia, near the western edge of the old continent, where few would venture, if not pressed by an urge to atone for sins committed inadvertently, but nevertheless gnawing away at their soul's supports for the better part of a lifetime.

In modern times the beaten tracks of the devout are trodden afresh by young and old alike, the former in a last stand of physical prowess against the drudgery of adult life, the latter to savour anew a taste of youthful freedom after a life of toil, and to erect a monument of personal merit and endeavour to become the beacon for the last stretch of their path through life.

In the minds of some who struggle to jump the remaining hurdles of working life without lasting damage to their physical or mental health, the eddies of longings unfulfilled, goals unobtained, and lingering dreams combine into a maelstrom of yearning to leave it all behind, and set out under open skies. For those Santiago offers a self-evident goal and direction.

Having gone the way of the pilgrim for weeks, if not for months, reaching the palpable end of the journey to non-catholics may feel like an anti-climax. Apart from the touristic attractions of Santiago's medieval city, cathedral, and teeming night-life, to the modern mind attending mass or kissing an altar stone is hardly a way to quench the flame of a burning spirit, or placate a worldly soul with its destiny.

To feel on their face the absolving brush strokes of eternity, to experience the utter finality beyond which it seems senseless to proceed, for several days they tramp on toward the setting sun, to the nominal end of the world, Cape Finisterre. There, on naked rock, gazing over the ocean's grey expanse to where the elements solve into a dim horizon, they are redeemed, and for the first time in many weeks do sense a faint stirring of nostalgia. From there on they're bound for home.

In former ages the way home used to be as long as the way onward. Not seldom the elderly and wary of way, who by their pilgrimage had been cleansed, and thus made trustful candidates for entering the Kingdom of Heaven, surrendered on the way back, never to see home again. The more enduring made for their loved ones as fast they could, and having partaken of the miracle of life from death, took up their former trades as wiser men.

A modern pilgrim treads the road to Santiago in quite a different set of mind. Wielding a telescopic gps-stick to beat the track, and flashing a camera, or iPhone at every detail or panorama on the 'camino', his mind is preoccupied by filling a blog with visual fodder and textual tidbits for friends at home, and fellow pilgrims abroad. A modern pilgrim may join the track wherever he likes. No need to set out from home, nor to return to it the laborious way. Once he has reached his goal, and updated his blog, today's pilgrim boards a train, or a plane, and will be home the next day.

Like we all know, being underway is the essence of the quest. Any goal, once attained, in itself doesn't sustain our existential needs for more than a whisper of breath. That's why there'll always be new goals, to keep us engaged, and on the move, for movement is life. I wonder whether the provisional goal should needs be Santiago for ever. Maybe the pilgrim of our time'll benefit by a reversal of directions, flying to the ancient city, or a substitute, and setting out from there, destination home.

Travelling to the end of the world, and being transported into raptures by its unworldly qualities, may be a great experience; coming home from a journey, and feeling the emotions which belong to a 'home-coming', may be an even greater miracle, and more lasting...

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Out of town, out of place, out of mind

Being a dedicated city-dweller, I once stayed at a homestead in the neighbourhood of Dalfsen, a village in the wild, rural east of the Netherlands.
A friend of ours had rented an in-house apartment to prepare in relative seclusion for his grades in history, and begged us to come over and join him for a couple of days. My wife and baby daughter slept in the guest-room of the owner, and I made myself comfortable on a settee in the hall-way.

Beside the house there was a small terrace, where we spent quite some time having tea and talking in the benificent shade of a majestic lime tree. The weather was beautiful, and we really went 'rural', as we gathered fresh nettle tops, of which my wife cooked an agreeable cream soup. Its taste remembered of spinach, though slightly more delicate.
The next day, embolded by this first sally into the unknown delights of Nature's culinary resorts, I made myself a dandelion sandwich - leafs, stem, and flower, on a bed of radish and cheese, between two buttered slices of bread - and ate it to my wife's derision, and the exhilaration of our friend. They didn't care for a bite.

Once back home, I sent the owner of the house a letter to thank her for her kindness to let us have the spare room for free, and I enclosed a sonnet I wrote in honour of her splended linden tree.

The Linden Tree

The linden tree stands all benign,
Its branches spread so fair.
I love the sight of its design,
Its gentle heart-shape, debonair.

Its tender leafs enhance the blue;
With rustling voices by the breeze
They chant their merry hymns and true
In praise of heaven, earth and trees.

A charming fragrance fills the air,
Which gladly with my soul agrees:
Abundance of flowers, free of any care

Bemuse so many honey-sucking bees.
If only we would meet somewhere
Its divine essence may grant us peace.

Ronald Langereis © 1978

The magic is, the silhouette of the tree resembles the outline of its leaf, inverted...

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Snow Whiter and the seven shades of pale

Do you believe in a fairy tale, like the winner of the latest Eurovision Song Contest? Then you may believe in a pundit's tale too, like home prices on the rise again, unemployment statistics dropping, banks lending, and consumers spending, before Santa Claus is coming to town.

Let me tell you, I heard the very tale myself, and I don't buy it. I think we've let things slip out of hand. We've been too complacent of late, and now the bogeyman is coming to strip us of our treasured trinklets, and of our life savings into the bargain.

We had no money to start with, but we took out liar loans to buy MacMansions we couldn't afford. We saw our friends driving Porsches, and prayed to the Bank for a Mercedes Benz. After all, we had to make amends. As our home equity kept rising, the Bank obliged. And then we prayed for a flat-screen TV, and a cappuccino machine, and toys and gadgets for our kids.
And the Bank refinanced our debt for a nice fat fee, of course, but who cared?

After a while we got bored stiff in our over-sized house, sipping latte from the cappuccino machine, and watching the late show on the home cinema. Now we would go for some real fun, and we went to the Bank for the third time, and prayed for a night on the town.
We got it all, and we spent it all, up to the last line on our last maxed-out credit card.

As you may know, in a fairy tale the third time is final, so, after this triple debt orgy the piper suddenly changed his tune. At first, we didn't even notice. We loved to live so pleasantly, live this life of luxury, lazing on a sunny afternoon. But the Bank giveth, and the Bank taketh away. By then, we'd quite forgotten about the second phrase of the sentence.

There were things going on in the world, things we'd been busy zapping away from with the remote of our flat-screen TV. Big banks going bust, car makers dropping by the roadside, the value in our 401K's halving, malls emptying, housing getting into a tail-spin, oh, the horror! And we started to get mail, snail mail, obscene letters from Repo Man. And every month half a million of us are getting a pink slip out of the blue.

We called the Bank, praying for a refi, and we found the lines clogged. Save me, we cried, save me, save me from this squeeze. I've got a big fat mortgage trying to break me! But this time the Bank was adamant. It couldn't spare the money. It needed all the dough it could lay its greedy hands on to shore up its balance sheet, to write off the tsunami of loans going bad. In its turn the Bank now was praying for a bail-out itself to the even higher powers.

These Higher Powers feed on emanations of arcane science, and generate insights, which by their very nature are beyond the realm of human comprehension and accountability. Moreover, these Higher Powers are in possession of a magical contraption, by which, if they so decide, they can evoke credit from thin air. In a world that is living and breathing by credit alone, the word from their lips is considered in awe.

And so it came about, that these Higher Powers, seeing credit crunched, and swirling around the black debt hole in an ever quickening fashion, against all human reason and free-market values, decided to wave their magical wand, and open the credit spigots full tilt to beat the sucking force of the black debt hole to it.

As far as debt holes go, the depth of this one is estimated at north of US$600 trillion. The Higher Powers together, so far, have washed away the as yet unimaginable sum of US$3 trillion in bail-out money for the ailing Bank, a mere half percentage point of debts outstanding, and we, credit-strapped as we are, will pay dearly for their folly in terms of a lower standard of living for decades to come.

Here the fairy tale popped. We're left standing in a waste land, on a road before an ancient porch, bearing on its frieze a vaguely familiar inscription: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch' intrate.

You may say I'm a doomer, but I'm not the only one. Maybe one day you'll join us, and the world will be a brighter one.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Living off the waste land

Deer steak from the Waterleidingduinen [Dune resort of the Amsterdam Water Board], wine from Vondel Park *), wild rabbit from Westpoort industrial estate, anything on your plate can be of urban provenance.

Imagine the shelves of supermarkets emptying fast, local food stores shutting down for days, or even weeks. It's not that improbable, a pandemic of pig flu, or a truckers' strike can do the job. Where would us city-dwellers turn to for our supper?

Should we savour sauteed tulip bulbs, like our grand-parents did during the starvation winter of WW II? Or would we resort to the oldest ways of food providing, and revive our dormant hunter-gatherer skills? Even in the built-up areas of our major cities there's ample opportunity for urban hunters and gatherers to catch a furry, or feathery friend, and to take home a rich harvest of fresh and healthy veggies and herbs for free.

I gathered from the web site of 'Het Parool', an Amsterdam daily, an article about urban foraging by an artistic couple, Wietske Maas and Matteo Pasquinello. Wietske is of Tasmanian birth, but of Dutch parentage. In her former life she was exhibiting in art galleries in Australia, but as of today she and Matteo have become hunter-gatherers in the Amsterdam outback.
Sander Overeinder, chef of restaurant 'As' [reminiscent of 'axis', as well as of 'Ashes to ashes', definitely not of 'ass'!], served their booty, diced and sliced to culinary standards, to a jury of artists and natural scientists.

The four-course experimental dinner consisted of:
1. a consommé of Chinese mitten crab, fished from the 'IJ' [~pron. 'eye'] in Amsterdam's western harbour area;
2. a fresh salad of hawthorn, comfrey, and lime-tree leaves, collected in the 'Amsterdamse Bos' *), a vast park to the south-west of the city;
3. and to add something of substance, collars of eel from the Petroleumhaven [litt. 'Kerosene Harbour', but it's only a name].
Some ingredients had to be bought, though: risotto rice, shallots, and lemons.

"We've been hunting with Piet Ruyter," said Wietske, "one of the last remaining eel fishers. And Martin Melchers, the city ecologist, showed us where to hunt for mitten crabs and American river crayfish. The vegetal components of the dishes I collected myself in Wester Park *) and Sloter Park."

*) Short descriptions of Amsterdam parks.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Love found

I bring word from the North Country Fair
Where the winds are blowing on the borderline
I've found the girl who's still living there
And who once was a true-love of thine...

Monday, 11 May 2009

Love lost

Si vous vaguez à la Foire du nord,
Où les vents soufflent à la plaine levée,
Souvenez de moi quelqu'une là-bas,
Celle qui jamais
était ma bien-aimée...