Thursday 24 April 2014
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Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

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A writer, blogger, and historian, born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, now based in London. read more
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Late Summer, Early Autumn

As the light of summer dies and the cold grey monotone of winter approaches, here are a few photos from the past month or two.

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October 18, 2013 3:30 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Into the Qadisha Valley

THE HOLY VALLEY cuts down like a gash in the earth, with the cathedral city of Bcharré on the clifftop, almost hanging off of it. One almost wonders if you started building at the other end of the town, it might force St Seba’s Cathedral off over into the deep beyond. There is something almost Lord of the Rings about the setting, a Levantine Minas Tirith, if only Tolkein had been a Maronite.

The Qadisha Valley (Ouadi Qadisha, وادي قاديشا, literally the “Holy Valley”) takes its name from the Aramaic word for saintly and for over a millennium its natural caves have provided shelter for hermits seeking solitude as well as others seeking refuge and safety. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Paleolithic era, and the Qannubin Monastery here is said to have been founded by the Emperor Theodosius the Great in the fourth century. While this is the holiest ground of the Maronite Catholics, hermits living in these caves and in these monasteries have been Melchite, Nestorian, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian. When the Monastery of St Maron was sacked by Antiochene Monophysites, many monks fled to the Qadisha Valley, strengthening the presence of this Eastern church which has always remained in communion with Rome. For over five hundred years, the Maronite patriarch made Deir Qannubin his seat. (Since 1830 the Patriarchate has been based at Bkerké above the pleasant Mediterranean city of Jounieh).

It was a hot summer’s day when we arrived and as chance had it we couldn’t even get very far into Bcharré.

“A man has died. We can’t go on,” the driver mysteriously intones. (A funeral procession is underway).

Very well. We carry on down circuitously weaving through the outer-lying portions of the town, through a small necropolis, and then finally into the valley proper. While the Qadisha valley attracts many pilgrims and travellers, this is not some easy tourist route, though nor is it difficult as hiking goes (unless, like us, you have a partially blind Paralympian among your party).

Up and down you go amongst small rivulets and meandering paths joining and divorcing from your own, led by a guide who speaks neither French nor English (thank God our Lebanese friends were with us).

Eventually, having passed a considerable way down, and then up a little ways, we are taken to a cave which has been segmented with stone walls into a chapel.

Much to my surprise, murals still survive in this exposed environment, protected by the overhanging rock.

The iconoclastic damage looked quite recent, and our guide explained it probably dated from as recently as the Syrian occupation (1976–2005).

Monasticism began in the East, of course, and Western monasticism is a slightly different kettle of fish. While hermits once lived in these caves, almost all of today’s Qadisha monks are gathered into the formal Maronite communities (Baladites, Aleppians, and Antonins) or into the other non-Maronite monasteries in the valley.

Brushing the dust of the Qadisha Valley from my shoes at the end of the day, I wondered if the first monks slapped their sandals together, discarding the very same sand sixteen hundred years earlier after they finished their Liturgy of the Hours for the day (though I somehow doubt it).

July 22, 2013 5:56 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Lebanon Without Comment

July 22, 2013 5:50 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

The Roman Corner

Friends are continually sending me postcards from Rome, such that they have gradually accumulated in a pile in my room. An English friend sent me one, and then an Irish friend saw it while visiting and, doubtless moved by the spirit of one-up-manship, sent one himself, whereupon the first friend sent another, to be followed by the most recent one (which arrived today) of the Chiesa di S. Agostino in the Campo Marzio. A miniature St Peter’s Basilica was recently added to the mix as well.

April 15, 2013 9:00 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Vienna Views

My written views of the city you will have to wait for (presuming they ever see the light of day), but here are a few photographic impressions from my jaunt to the Kaiserliche Hauptstadt. (more…)

April 7, 2013 10:50 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Ever Useful Haggis

Culinary skills are not prominent among my varied talents, though I was pleased that the guests at the last dinner party I held in my riparian West London abode received the evening rather well. (If the food was only so-so at least the thought behind the choice and mixture of guests was appreciated). In my limited (but slowly expanding) experience, I have found haggis a rather useful addition to the repertoire.

T’other day I cooked a haggis for supper, alongside some chips and peas — an unjustly neglected vegetable I can’t help but feel. (Boring old botanists insist the pea is actually a fruit, but never you mind). Unfortunately I lacked a suitable gravy or sauce, so had to make do with ketchup and mayonnaise (plus a dash of HP).

But what to do with the leftover haggis the next day? I tried spreading it on oatcakes but that was far too dry — oatcakes must be reserved for pâté, it seems. So instead I crumbled bits of haggis into a pot of tomato sauce, dobbed it with oregano, some mixed herbs, sea salt, and freshly crushed peppercorns, and enjoyed a surprisingly delicious meal which I’ve decided must be christened linguine alla scozzese.

April 7, 2013 10:30 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

London Lately

From a Pimlico rooftop, Friday afternoon.

At lunch, Friday.

A Saturday Mass in St Wilfrid’s Chapel, the Oratory.

A surprisingly sunny afternoon, yesterday in Ennismore Gardens.

February 18, 2013 5:30 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

A Rainy Day in Winchester

IT WAS LATE summer, neither particularly warm nor cold, and a bit rainy. I hadn’t seen Nicholas in a while but he wasn’t particularly keen on travelling into London. “Why not meet in Winchester?” he suggested, and, never having been to England’s former capital, I thought it was a good idea. I popped on the tube to Waterloo, got on a train, and in no time at all was in the county town of Hampshire. It’s a humanely size town, admirably located, and most famous for its medieval cathedral.

The thieving Protestants, not content with stealing all the cathedrals we built throughout the width and breadth of the land, highten the insult by charging admission to these former shrines and places of worship. I had arranged to meet Nicholas in the Cathedral, though, and the blighters got a good £6.50 out of me. I had a good wander round, though.

These mortuary chests contain the remains of the Saxon royalty of the kingdom of Wessex and later England.

Norman architecture is woefully underappreciated, and might form a useful style to return to today given its relative simplicity. So much Norman architecture was destroyed and replaced by Gothic during later periods of medieval prosperity, but at Winchester the Norman transepts remain.

William of Waynflete, buried here, was a high-flyer in his day. He was, varyingly, Bishop of Winchester, Headmaster of Winchester College, Provost of Eton, Lord Chancellor of England, and founded Magdalen College, Oxford. Not a bad innings.

Richard Foxe chose a more macabre memorial, but enjoyed similar success in this world: he was Bishop of Exeter, then of Bath & Wells, then of Durham, and finally of Winchester. He was Lord Privy Seal and founded Corpus Christi College at Oxford. Foxe and Erasmus sometimes wrote to eachother, and his elaborate crozier is on display at the Ashmolean.

The tomb of Henry Cardinal Beaufort is my favourite memorial in the cathedral. Beaufort — a Plantagenet — was Dean of Wells, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Bishop of Lincoln, Lord Chancellor of England, and finally Cardinal Bishop of Winchester. He was a sometime papal legate for Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia, and most famously presided over the trial of St Joan of Arc.

One of the walls was inscribed with graffiti.

The cathedral is also the final resting place for the earthly remains of Hampshire native Jane Austen, but nevermind that.

Tours of the College were available, but we decided to leave it for another visit, and went on a wander in the direction of the Hospital of St Cross.

The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty is the oldest charitable institution in England and the largest medieval almshouse. The church could be a small cathedral in and of itself, but as we arrived an interment was taking place, so we thought it best that it, too, was left for another day.

February 6, 2013 8:45 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Ten Random Photos of 2012

In roughly chronological order

Such has been the massive exodus from Facebook that I am forced to return to my previous practice of sharing random photographs via this platform. I suppose it’s just as well, as it will assure relatives in other places that I am actually alive. Keen observers will note that there are, in fact, more than ten photos, but nevermind. Apologies for the lack of explanation and the occasional in-joke (that’s in-joke… with a ‘Y’).

Burns Supper, Fulham.

Reunion of Scottish University Students, outside the Brompton Oratory.

Me and Johnny at Lourdes.

Downtown Beirut.

Nightclub, Beirut.

Party chez Jabre in the Lebanese mountains.

Marian procession, Malta pilgrimage, Walsingham. (Photo: Stephanie Kalber)

Autumn Drinks afterparty (disaster!) & Chabrouh fundraiser the next night.

Anastasia’s birthday.

A midwinter night’s run-into on the KR.

Yuletide, the West Country (…with a ‘Y’).

The Photo of 2012: Don Finiano convinces our favourite Member of Parliament to try out his new motorbike.

January 20, 2013 8:05 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Tradtastic Hertfordshire

The bishops of England & Wales cunningly arranged for the Feast of the Epiphany to fall on the actual Epiphany this year. We had a great big festive lunch at our favourite little Italian place in South Ken, but the night before I went out to Hertfordshire, where I witnessed the tradition of a door being CMB’d with holy chalk for the new year (above).

Those unaware of this tradition can read a bit more here. The C+M+B stands both for Christus mansionem benedicat (“Christ bless this house”) and the names of the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

January 10, 2013 10:10 pm | Link | No Comments »

Autumn by the Hudson

Some consider winter the time of death and desolation but I disagree. Winter for me is the incubation, the child in the womb, the seed beneath the soil waiting for the moment to sprout. Autumn, rather, is the time of melancholy and retrospection. Most of the trees here in New York are now bare, but before the leaves fell our friend the Brooklyn-based graphic & web designer Emily E. Owen (website here) caught these photographs of New York in the brilliant crepuscular light. The views are from Fort Tryon Park at the very top of the isle of Manhattan. (more…)

December 2, 2010 10:02 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

Scotland in Snowfall

Scotland has been enveloped in snowfall, and the BBC has put a photo gallery up of reader-submitted images of the recent precipitation. The In Pictures feature of BBC News Online’s Scottish section has for years been one of my favourite parts of the website, offering a new series of photographs every week varying from the startling to the quotidian. Above is Michael Rennie’s view of a rather peaceful-looking Loch Ness. (more…)

December 1, 2010 11:41 am | Link | 3 Comments »

Brown 26, Yale 14

B.U.R.F.C. 1st XV v. Y.U.R.F.C. 1st XV

I never paid much attention to rugby before I lived in South Africa, where it is inescapable, especially since I was studying at Stellenbosch, which the rugby-est of rugby universities. After becoming a rugby spectator you cannot go back to watching American football, which, with its stopping and starting, suddenly has the feeling of being a demented child’s game. And so, across the Connecticut border to trusty old New Haven, to join some friends and fellow club-members for some Saturday afternoon rugby and revelry, with champagne, whiskey, and home-brewed porter on offer. (more…)

October 27, 2010 1:11 pm | Link | 7 Comments »

Popping in to the Yale Daily News

With a bit of time to spare between the rugby match and dinner, we discovered a friend of ours was exploring the newly renovated headquarters of the Yale Daily News and were invited to join in. The handsome gothic structure is now overshadowed by an ugly extension to the previously ugly Yale School of Architecture, widely believed to be the ugliest building in town. Henry Luce paid for the YDN building out of his own pocket in memory of his Yale classmate Briton Hadden, who died just 31 years old. The place went up in 1932 and underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation over the summer, and the place was looking good. (more…)

October 27, 2010 1:00 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

In a Stellenbosch Garden

One of the pleasures of South Africa is that it is so conducive to the leafy things in life. Plants grow most of the year, so even while many of the trees may be bare, there is usually enough greenery about to keep things merry, as supported by the evidence of these shots of the garden of the little place in Stellenbosch where I used to live. Of course, this amenity to growth has its faults as well. Oak trees grow too quickly in this part of the world, leaving their wood too loose and unsuitable for use in barrelling. Wine- and brandy-makers must import their barrels from abroad, adding an irritating expense. Regardless of this incidental deficiency, South Africa still manages to produce some top-notch wines. (more…)

May 13, 2010 8:56 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Engelsman se Graf

It was just a dot and a name on the map on our way to Wupperthal — Englishman’s Grave, “Hmmm… I wonder what that could be”. The Cederberg mountains have many charms, and of course any one who drinks as much rooibos tea as I must be intrigued to see the only place in the world where it is commercially grown. Leopards, caracals, and bonteboks guard these hills, and of course our friend the dassie (previously seen here) is known to wander around its rocks. (more…)

April 14, 2010 12:24 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

Diaz Point

You drive to the end of the world, turn left, and continue. That’s the way to get to Diaz Point. Namibia’s coastline is supposed to be the least hospitable on the planet, with desert meeting salty ocean with naught in between. Staying the night at Seeheim, an agglomeration of half a dozen houses nearby a stone castle hotel, we woke early and drove the 200+ miles west through the arid rocky desert. The experience is made all the more interesting for the 16,000-square-mile “Restricted Diamond Zone” one drives on the northern periphery of. Namibia’s diamonds are primarily alluvial deposits, meaning they rest on ancient river beds, sitting on the soil or resting just a few feet below. The forbidden territory’s guards are believed to have a policy of shooting first and asking questions later. There are over sixty countries in the world smaller than the Sperregebiet (forbidden area), as the Restricted Diamond Zone is colloquially known.

Eventually — passing through the area inhabited by the wild horses of the Namib, descendants of German cavalry horses and farm animals variously escaped or set free — you arrive at the town of Lüderitz on the Atlantic coast. Besides its German street names (Zeppelinstraße, not to mention Bismarck, Bahnhof, Moltke), the town’s architecture is a curious Teutonic colonial, reinvented for the almost-tropical locale. From one or two of the local businesses, one could easily imagine a slightly overweight German in a linen suit and panama hat, with an eye-patch as well as a cane for his limp, ordering around the natives crudely while engaged in some nefarious criminal enterprise or campaign of sabotage.

But for Diaz Point, you go to Lüderitz, turn left, and go further still. Driving south from the colonial town, you encounter a barren, rocky, and utterly colourless landscape, the grey tones of which immediately bring to mind the surface of the Moon. Am I still on Earth? Only the blue sky and the occasional appearance of vegetation remind you that you’re still on the third planet from the Sun. (more…)

March 14, 2010 8:34 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

An Evening at the Travellers Club


Photo: © Zygmunt von Sikorski-Mazur

TO CLUBLAND, THEN, for a book launch. Of course the secret about book launches is that they are often enough a convenient excuse to assemble a whole troop of interesting characters together, with the introduction of a newly published volume occupying a secondary (while nonetheless prominent) role. In this, our esteemed hosts Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner of Craigenmaddie, authors of Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries, exceeded themselves. For me, the evening actually began not in the Travellers but just around the corner in the Carlton Club. Rafe Heydel Mankoo had suggested meeting up there for a drink or two or three before proceeding thencefrom toward the book launch at the Travellers. Pottering over from Victoria, I arrived at the Carlton and was guided towards the members’ bar where I easily found Rafe nursing a drink beside the hearth.

The usual updates were exchanged of various goings-on that had taken place since our last combination in August. Conversation naturally turned to Canada (where Rafe was raised) and shifted to New Zealand just before we greeted the arrival of Guy Stair Sainty. Guy I first met just four years ago while enjoying a pilgrimage to Rome. We happened to stumble upon him in the Piazza San Pietro (as one does with an odd frequency in the Eternal City), and, as it was my birthday, we invited him to join us for some champagne at this little place that overlooks the square. Guy was then in the midst of completing for Burke’s Peerage the massive, two-volume World Orders of Knighthood & Merit, or “WOKM”, which loomed restively on a nearby table as we sipped our drinks in the Morning Room. (more…)

February 24, 2010 8:12 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Dinner at Chiara’s

“Chiara,” I asked, “How will you ever know whether your friends are truly your friends or if they really just love your pumpkin risotto?” “You know,” she replied in her thick Italian accent, “this is a serious problem!” The possibility of never cooking pumpkin risotto again was mooted, but wholeheartedly condemned by all in attendance. The very thought was an affront to our salivating taste buds. (more…)

February 16, 2010 8:40 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Scotland

Written and illustrated by Andrew Cusack (at 7 years of age)

Were I to review this book, I would say it is riddled with inaccuracies and depicts a stereotypical Hollywood version of Scotland far-removed from reality. But then, it was written in 1991 by a seven-year-old (yours truly), which is already eighteen years ago now. The ultimate schoolboy error is that I was apparently incapable at age 7 of producing a vexillologically accurate reproduction of the Saltire. My incorrect version of the Scottish appears like the old Greek flag, a white cross extended across a blue field. (See the correct flag here). (more…)

January 17, 2010 4:07 pm | Link | 21 Comments »
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