Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

2017 April

A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Champagne and the World

Champagne can provoke a great deal of philosophy. I’ve often said that champagne and the Catholic faith are the only two universally applicable things in the universe – appropriate for births, deaths, good times and bad, early, late, or a mundane afternoon.

Iain Martin has a brief but excellent piece ‘On Wine’ discussing Churchill’s drinking habits, and wondering whether he really was permanently pissed during the war (unlike the teetotal vegetarian Mr Hitler).

Interesting in itself, but Mr Martin relates a trip to Épernay where he blind tastes a Margaux from 1873. By that time it should have tasted like vinegar but instead it was “beautifully balances and perfectly drinkable”.

Looked after carefully, not shaken about or disturbed unnecessarily, it evolved and endured. It retained its essential characteristics, giving pleasure to later generations. If only we nurtured political institutions and good government according to the same principle.

Nothing could better show the essence of a sound worldview.

April 13, 2017 11:30 am | Link | 3 Comments »

Borges’s Biblioteca

The old National Library on Calle Mexico in Buenos Aires

The intellectual Alberto Manguel grew up amidst the library of the Argentine diplomatic compound in Tel Aviv, as he recalls in this piece for Britain’s strangely underappreciated Literary Review.

At the end of 2015 Señor Manguel was appointed director of Argentina’s National Library, taking up his position in the middle of last year. In this role he steps into the shoes of Jorge Luis Borges who led the institution from 1955 until he resigned upon Peron’s return in 1973.

Returning to the ‘Queen of the Plata’ after a long career in exile was not a simple affair. As Señor Manguel writes:

The city, of course, was different. I found it difficult to look at the actual streets and houses without remembering the ghosts of what had been there before, or what I imagined had been there before. Buenos Aires felt now like one of those places seen in dreams, the geography of which you think you know but which keeps changing or drifting away as you try to make your way through it.

The National Library I had known during my adolescence was a different one. It stood on Mexico Street in the colonial neighbourhood of Montserrat. The building was an elegant 19th-century palazzo originally built to house the state lottery but almost immediately converted into a library. Borges had kept his office there when he was appointed director in 1955, when ‘God’s irony’, he said, had granted him in a single stroke ‘the books and the night’. Borges was the fourth blind director of the library, a curse I’m intent on avoiding. It was to this building, during the 1960s, that I used to go to meet Borges after school and walk him back to his flat, where I would read stories by Kipling, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson to him. After he became blind, Borges decided not to write anything except verse, which he could compose in his head and then dictate. But some ten years later he went back on his resolution and decided to try his hand again at a few new stories. Before starting, Borges wanted to study how the great masters had gone about writing their own. The result was two of his best collections, Doctor Brodie’s Report and The Book of Sand.

The library I discovered half a century later was lodged in a gigantic tower designed in the brutalist style of the 1960s. Borges, passing his hands over the architect’s model, dismissed it as ‘a hideous sewing machine’. The building is supposed to represent a book lying on a tall cement table, but people call it the UFO, an alien thing landed among pretty gardens and blue jacaranda trees. […]

In my adolescence, I tried to write, no doubt under the influence of Borges, a few fantastical stories, now fortunately lost. One of them was about an unbearable know-it-all to whom the devil, in exchange for I don’t recall what, entrusted the overseeing of the world. Suddenly, this oaf realises that he has to deal with everything at once, from the rising of the sun to the turning of every page of every book, and the falling of every leaf, and the coursing of every drop of blood in every vein, and he is crushed by the inconceivable immensity of the task.

I had wanted to try to put my ideas about reading and libraries into action ever since I received my first books. Now I have got my wish with a vengeance. I have never in my life done anything as demanding and overwhelming as directing the National Library of Argentina. I have become, from one day to the next, an accountant, technician, lawyer, architect, electrician, psychologist, diplomat, sociologist, specialist on union politics, technocrat, cultural programmer and, of course, librarian. I hope that, time and Argentinian politics permitting, I’ll be able to start a few things that may allow us to have, in the not too distant future, a national library we can be proud of.

April 6, 2017 12:55 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

First Gypsy Woman Martyr is Beatified

Emilia Fernández Rodríguez was killed during Spanish Civil War

The Catholic Church has beatified its first gypsy martyr in a ceremony in the Spanish city of Almería on the southern Mediterranean coast. Emilia Fernández Rodríguez, also known as “La canastera” (the basket-weaver), was one of 115 martyrs murdered in odium fidei by anti-Catholic militants during the Spanish Civil War.

The beatification ceremony took place in the city’s conference centre attended by over 5,000 people, including twenty-one bishops and four cardinals.

In 1938, Blessed Emilia Fernández was a poor gypsy woman living with her husband in Tíjola and surviving by basket weaving when the Republican forces occupied the town, shutting its church, and conscripting its menfolk. Emilia’s husband Juan with her help feigned blindness to escape conscription but was discovered and the couple were imprisoned separately.

Arriving at the women’s prison in Gachas-Colorás, Blessed Emilia was already pregnant and was jailed alongside many other practicing Catholic women who had refused to abjure their faith. Illiterate and never having been catechised despite being baptised, Blessed Emilia was taught how to pray the Rosary by another inmate. Her devotion to this Marian prayer and meditation attracted the ire of the prison authorities who threw her into solitary confinement for refusing to reveal which of her fellow inmates had catechised her.

After the birth of her baby girl, Ángeles, Blessed Emilia died as a result of her weakened condition from malnutrition and the appalling conditions of her isolation. Just twenty-three years old, her body was dumped into a common grave in Almería.

The painting of Blessed Emilia is by Raúl Berzosa
April 5, 2017 5:20 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

South Africa in the Old Days

This historical film about the early days of the Cape was probably produced for the van Riebeeck tercentenary festival of 1952.

The clip here covers the days of Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel, depicting them as carefree days of harmony and merriment in South Africa – in contrast to Europe where war and persecution reigned. Doubtless this was how the apartheid government sought to portray South Africa at the time: a haven of peace and prosperity in contrast to a Europe still recovering from war, with half the continent now under the Soviet boot.

Simplistic propaganda of course, but the film conveys a certain charm regardless, as does almost every depiction of the Cape before the British. The sight of geese flocking before an old Cape Dutch homestead (circa 7:00) never fails to touch the Cusackian heart…

April 3, 2017 2:27 pm | Link | 1 Comment »
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