Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The lost wedding album

Looking through old photographs with Mum was a yearly ritual on my visits home. Those long sessions as we went through boxes of images from three generations of the family were an excuse to talk about genealogy and share stories, some dating back to before she was born. It was my only possible remaining way into our whakapapa, of which I had and continue to have a lamentably scant knowledge. There are so many dark spots.

Finally last year, as I was helping Mum sort out the apartment in preparation for her final move, the time came for us to approach the task systematically, once and for all. And so one night I announced I would grab the large bundle of loose pictures from their drawer in the old writing desk, so we could choose which ones to keep and where to put them.

‘Don’t forget the ones in the false bottom,’ she called out from the living room.


It turns out that there was indeed a false bottom in the old writing desk, which everyone but me had always known about, and if you took the drawer out and pulled back a wooden panel, there it was, a large space comprising the entire back section of the desk. Inside there was another, larger bundle of pictures, some of which I had seen, many years before, and remembered, but most of which were totally new to me. In particular, there were two pictures, one of me and one of Dad, which we clearly took in quick succession, one of the other, during a winter holiday. Seeing those was like being granted the wish of a few more seconds spent together; some extra life.

Then, stuck in a corner at the very bottom of the pile, I found this. A small yellow envelope containing eleven Ektachrome transparencies, which we were quickly able to date very precisely to 10 May, 1961.

This requires a little back story. There were never proper photos of my parents’ wedding, the reason being that my uncle said he would take them and that it would be his present to Mum and Dad, but very few of them turned out to be any good. So who took those eleven pictures? And why were they never mounted onto slides? Mum had no recollection of them, so I can only speculate that another guest took them, and when he passed them on to my parents they didn't pay much attention, as they were still waiting for my uncle’s mother lode. Then they just forgot they existed.

It’s an unusual event to go all but unrecorded, a wedding, but to find a lost record over half a century later was truly unexpected. I wasn’t able to locate a laboratory in Milan that would process the transparencies while I was there, and I didn’t want Mum to have to worry about it, so I took them with me to Wellington, where I had them scanned and printed in time for this year’s trip. When I picked them up, I was genuinely moved by them.

It wasn’t just the quality and clarity of the images. It was also that they were in colour, unlike any other photograph of my parents from that period. This gave them an uncanny, timeless quality, and at the same time a sense of being truer to their subject. It also gave a renewed sense of reality to the idea of my parents as young people. As if you could reach out and touch them.

There was my grandparents’ house, not long after it was built, bathed in an achingly familiar light from my own childhood.

There were spring flowers. (They may not have been hers, but my grandmother was a terrific gardener.)

There was a sense of the occasion.

And there was this, the best picture of my parents I had never seen.

I love that I was able to show these to Mum. They prompted more stories, other conversations. I asked her if it would be okay for me to write about the find, and what it felt like. We shared in the pleasure of that unlikely, unexpected gift.

The pictures also exist as objects, faithful carriers of analogue information that may be left inside a secret drawer for fifty years and still be recovered intact, along with metadata about their history (the manufacturers’ markings, and so forth) and all the other details encoded in their physical structure, there to be read by people with the necessary expertise. It is a virtue of such objects that they can be lost. You couldn’t misplace a hard drive for an equal span of time and still hope to recover information from it, or even tell very much about what was on it. The preservation of digital images takes other forms. You make copies. You spread those copies around. But each of them has a comparable lifespan, and none of them is an object, a material thing whose fragile nature itself is a carrier of meaning. This is not to make a qualitative judgment. They’re just different.

Thanks to that difference, that uniqueness, we lost and then found my parents’ wedding album. It was a joy to discover it, when we were so nearly out of time.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Tony Blair contingency

The civil war in Syria with its attendant disintegration is having its predictable and malign effect that I, Tony Blair, totally failed to predict. Iraq is now in mortal danger. The whole of the Middle East is under threat, although this time not from me personally.

Not his fault
We will have to rethink the strategy that I, Tony Blair, urged towards Syria, and support the Iraqi Government in beating back the insurgency. Then we need a comprehensive plan for the Middle East that correctly learns the lessons of the past decade. By which I mean from 2004 onwards. There are no lessons at all to be learned about 2003, which was a fantastic year. In doing so, we should listen to and work closely with our allies across the region, like we always have. ‘Really good at listening,’ is what our allies across the region used to call us.

It is profoundly disappointing to me, Tony Blair, that events in Mosul have led to a rerun of the arguments over the decision to remove Saddam Hussein. Also, I’ve been starting to get those ‘Greetings from The Hague’ postcards again. The key question obviously is what to do now, not defend again what I did then. But because some of the commentary has gone immediately to claim that but for that decision, Iraq would not be facing this challenge; or even more extraordinary, implying that but for the decision, the Middle East would be at peace right now; it is necessary that certain points are made forcefully in what is not at all a senseless, depraved attempt to rescue the reputation and historical legacy of me, Tony Blair.

This won’t take long. Just allow me a brief 1,200-word preamble in which I’m going to claim that we defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, until the sectarianism of the Maliki government snuffed out what was a genuine opportunity to build a cohesive Iraq and save my face. In fact, if anything, we should debate about whether the withdrawal of US forces happened too soon. Do it to Julia!

Next, I’m going to tell you that although Saddam didn’t turn out to have WMDs, going to war with Iraq was the right decision because Assad ended up using chemical weapons we didn’t even know he had, which means that Saddam would have too, eventually, had we not attacked him. This is going to give you such a headache you’ll have to take a heavy dose of barbiturates and lie down for a few hours.

Pardon me? Yes, this is in fact the same Assad that I warmly entertained during his visit to Britain in 2002, and that my government considered bestowing an honour upon. Now I’m saying we should remove him. Except I’m also saying that we should stop ISIS with all means necessary. This will start making sense as soon as your head clears. In the meantime, get this: Islamist extremism in all its different manifestations as a group, rebuilt refinanced and rearmed mainly as a result of its ability to grow and gain experience through the war in Syria. And not, say, through ten years of insurgency in Iraq. Yeah.

The second argument – that no-one is really making but I’ll pretend someone were so I can triumphantly refute it – is that, but for the invasion of 2003, Iraq would be a stable country today. Watch me turn this into a straw man so combustible it will burn quicker than one of my effigies.

The reality is that the whole of the Middle East and beyond is going through a huge, agonising and protracted transition. We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that I, Tony Blair have caused this. I haven't. We can argue as to whether the policies that I supported or contributed to have helped or not, as if we hadn’t opened the ‘world’ section of a newspaper in the last fifteen years. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region, not inside my perfectly tailored suit.

The problems of the Middle East are the product of bad systems of politics mixed with a bad abuse of religion going back over a long time. Poor governance, weak institutions, oppressive rule and a failure within parts of Islam to work out a sensible relationship between religion and Government have combined to create countries which are simply unprepared for the modern world.

The modern world is the one in which my friends and I can decide to bomb your nation into the pre-modern world, for motives that are either trumped up or fabricated. This is what our effective governance, sensible religion and precision technology allow us to do. You wouldn’t understand.

Put into that mix, young populations with no effective job opportunities and education systems that do not correspond to the requirements of the future economy, and you have a toxic, inherently unstable matrix of factors that was always – repeat always – going to lead to a revolution. But enough about the UK or Europe. We were talking about the Middle East.

The fact is that as a result of the way these societies have developed and because Islamism of various descriptions became the focal point of opposition to oppression, the removal of the dictatorship is only the beginning not the end of the challenge. Once the regime changes, then out come pouring all the tensions – tribal, ethnic and of course above all religious; and the rebuilding of the country, with functioning institutions and systems of Government, becomes incredibly hard. The extremism destabilises the country, hinders the attempts at development, the sectarian divisions become even more acute and the result is the mess we see all over the region.

Yes: I, Tony Blair, the chief enabler of George W. Bush, Dick ‘we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators’ Cheney and the whole Project for a New American Century crew, am lecturing you about complexity and unintended consequences. With this face.

This face
Understanding this and analysing properly what has happened and how it’s not the fault of me, Tony Blair, is absolutely vital to the severe challenge of working out what we can do about it. So rather than continuing to rerun the debate over Iraq from over 11 years ago, realise that whatever we had done or not done, we would be facing a big challenge today. So what do you think, maybe we could have not invaded Iraq and spared half a million lives? I don’t know. You tell me.

The point is that we won't win the fight until we accept the nature of it. Iraq is part of a much bigger picture. By all means argue about the wisdom of earlier decisions. But please don’t. It is the decisions now that will matter. The choices are all pretty ugly, it is true. But for three years we have watched Syria descend into the abyss, and as it is going down, it is slowly but surely wrapping its cords around us pulling me down with it. We have to put aside the differences of the past and act now to save the future. My future.

I don’t want to go to jail.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The city of wives

For seventeen years I was a rubber band stretched across the world, pulled between the two places I called home. It was a privileged life, in many respects, that of the migrant who never quite left, but also complicated, expensive, uncertain and – especially towards the end – physically and mentally exhausting. Seventeen trips, an almost exactly yearly ritual (two years I didn’t go; two years I went twice), which required having to learn and invent a whole system for navigating places and relationships. It settled into the time I spent with Mum in our old apartment; the two of us visiting the old village where Dad and her parents were buried; and a weekend away on my own, or with my eldest son – who got to come on three or four trips – to see one of my dearest friends. There was a hierarchy of things to do and people to see, as well as an etiquette about the order in which they were done and seen.

It’s over now, broken, and will have to be reinvented.

The view from my hotel in Camogli.
After we buried Mum and spent a week in Milan settling her affairs, I decided to leave the city for a couple of days. I needed somewhere to grieve on my own – perhaps for those seventeen years as much as for my mother – and took the best advice that was given to me: met with a friend in Genoa, then left for Camogli, stopping just short of the Cinque Terre. Beautiful places I had never seen before, speaking through their landscape and buildings a language I was unfamiliar with.

For instance: trompe-l'œil. They can’t get enough of it over there.

Some windows are painted, and some are real.

Some windows open inside other windows.

The effect is very pleasing and harmonious, almost making you forget that it’s a trick, a cheap alternative to still being one of the great powers of Europe. Not even the Duke’s Palace was spared form the artifice.

At first glance Genoa is all about the past grandeur and the five-century decline, its heart comprising the famously ill-reputed bassi, a labyrinth of tiny streets and alleyways that you’re supposed to enter at your own risk.

I didn’t have any trouble but recorded some of the graffiti.

Why do we burn, why do we destroy?
Because we are goods, and we don’t like it at all

May fear switch sides (the word campo, in silver paint, is invisible in the photo)

A sky this dark cannot clear up without a storm

The world burns
Lou Reede (sic)

This can either mean ‘Fear love’ or ‘You fear love’.

Don’t vote: drink!

A tobacconist's sign stood out.

More colour. Fridge magnets outside a newsstand.

A gryphon, the symbol of the city.

One for my collection of statues of Garibaldi.

In Nervi, the gates of Eden.

And a poster for the same hotel, at the wonderful little Museum known as the Wolfsonian.

On the passeggiata, where every ten metres there’s a plaque commemorating one of the many famous writers who used to come here for inspiration and the lifestyle.

I felt that I was properly getting away then. Three more stations down the coastal railway line was Camogli, the town that in the English guidebooks is said to derive its name from the phrase ‘casa delle mogli’, therefore house or city of wives, meaning the wives of the fishermen out at sea. This likely isn’t true, but what’s the harm? Besides, the town is really beautiful, fitting of a made up poetic name, and on a Monday night in early summer it bustles quietly, just enough to make you feel that you’re not completely alone. You go out and you’re just this tourist. It was perfect.

This metallurgists’s shop opened in 1924 and if the owners aren’t there, it means they’re working somewhere else. Therefore, ‘No parking, I have to come in at all hours’.

You can’t play football here.

If taking pictures is a way of seeing, then writing is a way of thinking – and both are ways of remembering. So I look back now not just on seventeen years of travels, but also on six years of writing about them on this blog, through a series of near-identical posts grappling with the same, narrow set of issues: what constitutes presence and absence; the transmission of memory through places and objects; above all, the slow unwinding of Mum’s life and of our time together. And I realise that it helped me immeasurably to write them, and to have someone read them. So, if you're reading this: thanks.

The next day after breakfast I embarked on the three-hour hike – through a forest and over a hill – from Camogli through to San Fruttuoso. The connection with my mother was by way of FAI, the Italian Fund for the Environment, of which she was a long-time supporter. It was FAI that rescued the abbey from its state of abandonment, in the 1980s, and thereafter it graced the cover of every one of the brochures that we got in the mail. However for complicated reasons, ultimately boiling down to how difficult it is to reach, Mum and Dad had never been to the place. Yet I knew I would find them there.

Beauty can heal you, can it not? But it was something else as well, the sense of being somewhere new yet shaped like so many other places we had visited together: the monuments that Mum and Dad had taught my sister and I to appreciate on our holidays when we were children. It was our learned behaviour, to move around the cloisters and the crypts, to read the arrangement of the stones, like amateur archaeologists. There, in the ordinary perfection of a day in early June, was my peace.

I made my way back to Camogli by boat, and then, a few days later, by a series of planes, to what I am now quite certain is my home.