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?