Autumn can be a strange and disturbing time. Darkness descends much sooner every day. The weather gets cold and damp. The leaves fall from the trees and most of the flowers die. Many insects disappear, while numerous birds fly away, vanishing from our skies for months on end. Meanwhile people, including young children, start to dress up in weird costumes and go around the streets trying to scare others or even threaten them with mischief on their own doorsteps. In this same disconcerting season, bonfires are lit and 17th century-style effigies are burnt on them. Explosives are set off creating a cacophony that sounds as if war has broken out, frightening both animals and people of a nervous disposition. Adults indoctrinate their children into an irrational hatred of Roman Catholics as if they were still living in the 16th or 17th centuries. This results in a well known Catholic man from the past becoming a hate-figure and being symbolically burnt to a cinder on countless ritualistic bonfires. Yes, autumn in Britain can be a mysterious and disturbing time.
Of course, I’m talking in particular about the festival of Halloween and the British tradition of Bonfire Night, on October 31st and November 5th respectively. They are both very popular traditions, and if anything, their popularity is on the rise. People spend increasing amounts of money in order to take part in them. I read recently that Britons have spent in the region of £330 million on pumpkins and other Halloween party goods this year (2014). For the whole of October 31st, social- media sites were taken over by pictures of people and their children daubed with frightening face-paints and sporting costumes that transformed them into: ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, monsters or characters from horror movies. It seems that such activities all have to be exhibited online these days. I went to the supermarket to get back to normality, only to be welcomed by a she- devil and served by a skeleton. Later on in that strange day I switched on the TV to find that the barman in the Eastenders pub had a large bolt through his neck as if he was a character from a horror movie. Knocks came on our door after dark and we were greeted by neighbours’ children dressed as ghosts and zombies threatening to play tricks on us if we didn’t give them a treat. In the past, when asked the question ” Trick or treat?” I’ve always asked for a treat but never got one. I was just met with bemused looks as if it was me who was the crazy one. It was a strange, unsettling day.
It’s funny because when I was a kid we never did much at Halloween. Some of my mates referred to it as “mischievous night” and went around threatening to throw people’s gates into the middle of their gardens unless placated with a reward. But, being a law-abiding citizen, I never joined in on that. The festival seems to have taken off in recent years and become a very big event. I suppose the influence of mass media , advertising and social networking has a lot to do with it. I imagine that people come under great social pressure to conform and not to be left out in the cold. This is especially so for people with children. The value of “pester power” should never be underestimated.
But what is all this dressing up, trick or treating and partying all about? It would be interesting to conduct a survey of all those participating in Halloween and see how many understand why they are doing it. Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening”. “Hallows” are saints. On the evening of October 31st, people in the past remembered the dead, including saints and martyrs. However, I haven’t yet seen anybody dressed up as Saint Christopher or Joan of Arc, have you? Christians traditionally prayed for the souls of the recently departed, to help them make it through purgatory and get to heaven. Have you seen anybody praying at Halloween? It seems that the original reasons for the festival have now been largely lost in the mists of time, such that we are now left with a celebration without a reason, a tradition that has lost its roots. I think lots of our festivals and celebrations have been separated from their original meanings. Christmas is a case in point. It’s now largely a time of material consumption, present giving, parties, family get-togethers and much eating and drinking rather than being about Mary, Joseph and the birth of their baby: Jesus Christ. The festival and the original reason for that festival seem to have become disconnected.
I suppose a few Christians might still pray for the souls of the dead or light candles on graves in the churchyard at Halloween. However, for the majority that’s sounds pretty boring and terribly serious. It’s much more fun to dress up and have a party. The connection with the souls of the dead seems to have been reduced to dressing up as a ghost or a skeleton. I’m talking mainly about the UK, the USA and other countries of the so called West. I know that celebrations in Mexico have a much stronger connection with the actual dead and in places like New Guinea , coffins are dug up and paraded through the streets so that the departed can take part in their own festival. Maybe that would be considered too upsetting in the West where people don’t normally like to think about death, corpses or coffins. In the past people used to bake soul- cakes to commemorate the deaths of loved ones. Mummers ( singers) in disguises would sing, recite verses or pray for the recently departed in exchange for being given these cakes or other food. This tradition has now disappeared. Trick or treaters don’t sing, recite or pray anymore. They just turn up in fancy dress with a candle-lit lantern and are rewarded with the ubiquitous sweets and candies. For instance, a three year turned up on my sister’s doorstep and immediately grabbed a handful of sweets as a reward for dressing up. I wonder if that little girl knew that her scooped out pumpkin is called a Jack o’ Lantern and is supposed to represent the soul of a deceased person? I doubt it.
I’m not against people having fun although you might get that impression from the above paragraphs. It’s great to have fun- times especially when you are a child. What does concern me is that most of the serious reasons for the Halloween festival are mostly forgotten or ignored. It is no longer about thinking of departed loved ones or paying respect to saints and martyrs. That depth has largely disappeared. It has become another one of our frothy, superficial festivals devoid of real meaning. As is often the case these days, the driving force behind it is big business, trying to get us to spend our money. When I Googled Halloween on my laptop, the list of references that appeared read: costumes, decorations, games, ideas, pictures. There was nothing about saints, souls, praying , singing or lighting candles. To be fair, it’s not a festival that is totally devoid of meaning. Rather it has simply acquired new meanings. I suppose, being generous, one could say that nowadays people use humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. It’s strange how people love scaring themselves and others. It is thought to be great entertainment. However, does the modern version of Halloween really tackle the sombre subject of death or does it merely provide us with yet another fun-filled distraction that helps us to avoid actually thinking about our own mortality? Meanwhile the shops and the manufacturers rub their hands in glee at the prospect of another consumer spending spree. The pressure to join in and not be left out is very powerful, especially for those with children.
Meanwhile, hot on the heals of Halloween comes Bonfire Night, a peculiarly British festival. But what is this festival about? It celebrates the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. A group of Roman Catholic plotters planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when King James I was due to make a speech there. They hired a soldier called Guido Fawkes to handle the gunpowder which they had hidden in a storeroom below the parliament building after tunnelling through there from an adjoining house. They were disappointed that King James, the first of the Stuart monarchs had decided to keep England as a Protestant country instead of restoring Catholicism as the official church. The burning at the stake of leading protestants in the reign of Mary I ( “Bloody Mary”), the attempted invasion of England by the Catholic Spanish Armada in 1588 and the numerous plots to replace Elizabeth I with her Roman Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, had all led to Roman Catholicism becoming very unpopular in mainstream Britain. This post Reformation era had seen many examples of religious ( Catholic v Protestant) strife across Europe. The Gunpowder plot of 1605 was just the latest example. The plotters had planned to replace King James with a Catholic ruler and put Britain back into the arms of the Pope in Rome. So when the plot was discovered and the plotters executed or killed while trying to escape, it was a great cause of national celebration. Guido (Guy) Fawkes himself was captured, tortured and then hung, drawn and quartered. He was never actually burnt on a bonfire, the fate of many a religious “heretics” in those far off days.
So that’s what Bonfire Night is all about. But the momentous events of 1605 are now over 4 centuries ago. Why are we still celebrating them today? Roman Catholics have been allowed back into the fold and religious freedom and tolerance are practised in modern Britain. ( except a Roman Catholic would still not be allowed to be our monarch.) Why are we annually trying to stir up religious hatred and intolerance, and indoctrinating our children with the same out-dated prejudices? I remember watching a TV programme which showed how the rest of Europe viewed the British tradition of Bonfire Night. They portrayed us as a nation still living in the past, constantly reviving old hatreds and prejudices such as the holding of Tudor and Stuart era anti-popery demonstrations. Is this true? Are we are a nation that clings on to negative prejudices from the past? Or is it really that it’s just another excuse for a party and a celebration? Bonfire Night is another occasion when people gather together, have parties, eat and drink special dishes and generally have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Indeed Bonfire Night, like Halloween and Christmas is an important occasion that brings our nation together. It is a unifying force in an increasingly disparate nation. However, I still suspect that Bonfire Night has become a festival divorced from its original meaning. This disturbs me and I don’t really know why. I know all about the story of Guy Fawkes and King James I because I taught it every year in school. However, I wonder how many people building bonfires, setting off fireworks and burning “Guys” actually know and understand the real story behind their celebration? Also, is it right and proper that our country should annually stir up such ancient and poisonous prejudices?
I enjoyed Bonfire Night as a child. It was one of the highlights of the year. It brought our local community together. But is it now a tradition that is way past its sell-by date? Maybe, if we love firework shows so much, we should just use them to celebrate New Year?
This is the blog of a non-conformist. I hate to be a slave of tradition. I dislike being pressurised by the media and by society into doing the same things at the same time as everyone else. Christmas is always a time of mixed emotions for me. What I hate most of all is being subjected to intense commercial pressure. I don’t mind spending my money if I see a point to it. I like buying presents for my loved ones. But how many people spending large sums of cash on Halloween costumes and Firework displays really know why they are doing it? How many know the real origins and meaning of the festivals they are supposed to be celebrating? Are people really trying to get in touch with their departed loved ones or celebrating the saving of King and Parliament from murderous plotters, or are they taking part because they don’t want to be left out or called a killjoy? Lots of subtle pressures are constantly trying to persuade us to be an accepted part of the crowd. Facebook pages on Halloween or glossy Christmas adverts on TV that have already begun in the first half of November are just two of the more obvious examples. Yes it’s been a strange, slightly disconcerting autumn for me, but then it always is!
We’ve just been on an epic American road trip — over 3000 miles in 15 days. OK, I admit it, we cheated and went by coach. But it still counts doesn’t it? We crossed the Great Plains, meandered through the towering mountain ranges and traversed the High Desert country of western USA. We were driving along the routes of the settlers and pioneers of previous centuries, who travelled ever westwards in search of a new life. It was fabulous- for us that is, not for them. Thinking back on it now, I can conjure up vivid images of endless landscapes, huge skies and constantly receding horizons. Despite the cop-out of going on a guided tour, it was still a fabulous, mind-expanding experience I feel.
Road trips and America seem to go hand in hand. This country/continent is so vast and, outside the big cities, so empty, that the traveller is liable to be overwhelmed and swallowed-up by it all. It’s almost as if one becomes part of the landscape. One gets a great sense of one’s own insignificance in the great scheme of things. The feeling can be powerful. I felt it even though I was sharing the experience with 40 other travellers. We were a large group and had a large coach which ate up the miles, but we were still easily consumed by the vastness of the lands that we were passing through. Somehow, one never gets that feeling in Britain, a crowded island with equally crowded roads. The M1, M25 or the A1 just bring up images of: roadworks, congestion, accidents and traffic jams. I dread having to drive along them. Instead of being a means of escape, they are something I want to escape from. I imagine it’s like that in America’s big cities — all those 6 lane highways filled with constant streams of traffic.( I had a brief experience of that in Miami and Orlando, on an earlier trip.) However, in the wide open spaces of Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah it is a completely different story. The empty highway, stretching to a distant horizon, represents freedom rather than captivity.
Sometimes as I gazed at the never-ending prairies or got a crick in my neck trying to see the tops of mountain peaks, I had to pinch myself just to check that it was real. You see, I had done this American road trip many times before in my imagination. Countless films, songs and books had taken me on vicarious journeys through this same epic countryside. The classic “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac or, on a lighter note, Bill Bryson’s humorous “The Lost Continent”, both, in their different ways, take the reader on great journeys across the length and breadth of the USA. The road movie is a major film genre, from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider” in the 60’s, “Paper Moon” and “Five Easy Pieces” in the 70’s, to films like: “Thelma and Louise”, David Lynch’s “The Straight Story”, “Sideways” and “Little Miss Sunshine” in more recent decades. The genre typically has the main character(s) travelling from place to place and the experience giving them a different perspective on life from that of their everyday existence. The film is about the journey rather than the destination. The time taken on the road places the traveller in a sort of vacuum. It’s a no-man’s land, situated in-between two worlds. The miles that have to be covered allow ample time for reflection such that it becomes an emotional as well as a geographical journey.
A lot of popular music, especially from America, covers much of the same territory. I have been taken on countless journeys courtesy of my radio or stereo speakers. Songs about hobos and about life on the open road. Songs about travelling but never quite getting there, or about returning home but not getting the anticipated reception. Then there are the restless songs about constant wandering or songs about escape, with the road representing freedom and the hope of a better future. If I listed all the titles, we would be here all day. Just off the top of my head I think of : “24 Hours to Tulsa” ( Gene Pitney), “Hit the Road Jack” ( Percy Mayfield), “On the Road Again” ( Canned Heat), “Route 66″ ( The Rolling Stones), ” Fast Car” ( Tracey Chapman), “Ramblin’ Man” ( The Allman Brothers) and “Me and Bobby McGhee” ( Kris Kristofferson). Then of course there is Bruce Springsteen’s most loved song ( at least by me) “Born to Run” or, on the same album: “Thunder Road” — “–roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere.”
Sometimes it seems as if I’ve always been on the road in America, travelling the wide-open highways that are such a contrast from the often crowded roads of England. Maybe reading those books, listening to those songs and watching those road movies had a lot to do with my constant yearning to travel, ( apart from my dad being a railway- engine driver that is.) In one way or other I have been journeying through America for most of my life, despite only actually ever been there in the flesh twice. I clearly remember one night in the mid 1970’s, just after I had purchased my first pair of headphones, staying up late and unwinding by listening to Joni Mitchell’s latest offering “Hejira.” I soon left my everyday world of school- teaching and family- life to enter the alternative world of the American highway. Wikipedia tells me that the title is a transliteration of the Arabic word “Hijra”, which means “journey”. I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know was that it was a wonderfully restless album full of road- trip imagery such as: highways, small towns, motels, cafes, skies and deserts. I got sucked into that world and temporarily forgot that I was actually sitting still in a semi-detached house in north-west Sheffield. The album was largely written by Joni while on a long trip by car from Maine to California. She explained that the album has “this restless feeling throughout it. The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Thus I listened to lines such as :”A prisoner of the white lines of the freeway”, “I’m driving in some vehicle, I’m sitting in some café” or on the last track ” You couldn’t see these coldwater restrooms, Or this baggage overload, Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads.”
Rewinding nearly two decades, back to when I was a child in the very early 60’s, I was already fascinated by travel across the great expanses of the North American continent. I distinctly remember one Monday evening when my sister and I were excitedly waiting for the TV engineer to arrive and put up our ITV aerial. We already had BBC but we were now desperate to acquire the Independent Television channel because it had exciting American programmes such as “Wagon Train”. This was a popular western series about the adventures of settlers heading west in covered wagons to start new lives as farmers, ranchers or prospectors. “Wagon Train” was screened on a Monday evening so it was a race against time. In those days of only 2 channels and no recording or playback facilities, you had to catch a show when it was screened or miss it for good. (We didn’t then realise that there would be endless repeats on daytime TV at a future date.) Would the engineer get the new TV aerial up before that night’s episode? He did, thank goodness! We kids were given special permission to stay up late to see “Wagon Train even though it was a school night. It didn’t finish until 9-30pm, half an hour past our usual deadline!
“Wagon Train” which screened from 1957 to 1965 told the stories of travellers heading west in covered wagons from post Civil War Missouri to California or Oregon. It was set in the 1870s. The wagons travelled through the plains, deserts and Rocky Mountains led by the gruff, but good at heart Major Seth Adams ( Ward Bond) and guided by the dashing, buckskin-clad frontier scout Flint McCullough ( Robert Horton). For some reason, Robert Horton was one of my earliest heroes, beating even Cliff Richard into second place! I was only 10/11 at the time — that’s my excuse. The series also featured comedy turns from a grizzled old cook called Charlie B Wooster ( Frank McGrath.) Each episode concentrated on the characters on one particular wagon. The wagons were pulled by teams of horses and met many dangers on the way including: dust storms, drought, hunger, disease and attacks from bandits or “Indians.” In the latter instance the wagons would go into a defensive circle to fight the attackers off. For some of the travellers there was a happy ending, but for others there was not. It was all extremely exciting in the context of my short, sheltered life and maybe planted some early seeds that eventually resulted in me making that recent North American road trip.
In reality, the pioneers heading west had to endure much tougher conditions than those depicted on that early TV series. I found this out on my trip. We seemed to constantly criss-cross the Oregon/California Trail. First of all we visited Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, an important staging post on the settlers’ journey, as well as being a cavalry fort and a Pony Express station. Later we came across the historic trail again as we passed through part of Idaho and stopped at the National Oregon/California Trail centre in the tiny town of Montpelier. I found out that the TV myths didn’t always match reality.
For a start most settlers purchased 4 to 6 oxen rather than horses to pull their wagons. Oxen were stronger and cheaper although a lot slower than horses. Also, they were less likely to be stolen by “Indians” or bandits. Oxen could easily feed off the prairie grasses. In fact the slowness of these beasts suited the pioneers as they invariably walked beside the wagon which was filled with their essential possessions and provisions. Many walked barefoot. Only the old and sick would get a ride. Between 1841 and 1900, over 300,000 Americans of all ages and types sold most of their possessions, purchased wagons and headed west on an epic 2000 mile journey. The journey took 5 to 6 months. The Rockies had to be crossed before the winter set in otherwise disaster loomed. Many didn’t make it. 1 in 10 died on the way — from cholera, poor sanitation, starvation, exposure or accidents. Many were buried on the trail to protect their bodies from scavenging wild animals. “Indian” attacks were fairly rare and in fact, in many cases, especially in the early days, the native Americans helped the white settlers travelling across their land.
At the Oregon/California Trail Centre there was a lovely exhibition of beautiful hand-made quilts. We learnt about the importance of quilts on the treks. What would you say the 4 main uses were? Well, first of all they kept the travellers warm. Secondly they provided privacy as they could be turned into screens. Thirdly they could be traded with the Native tribes. Lastly they were used as burial shrouds when someone perished on the trek. All of this sort of information made us feel very humbled as we re-boarded our luxury coach to be transported effortlessly on to our next comfortable hotel.
It was a great road trip. Thank you to Travelsphere, our tour guide Dean, and our driver Ching for organising it all and making it so memorable. We saw lots of stupendous scenery, met kind and interesting people and learnt heaps of fascinating history. In a way this trip joined up lots of different episodes in my life and made sense of them. All those travel books, songs and movies now got recalibrated in my mind. The experience was no longer a second hand one. I have now gained my own personal memories and photos. Like all great road trips it taught me a lot and helped to put my everyday life at home into sharper perspective. That’s what all good travel is about. It wasn’t always relaxing and it certainly wasn’t a holiday in the “resting by the pool” or the “lying on a beach” sense, but it was a truly fulfilling experience.
I got a big surprise when I arrived at Denver International Airport on a recent trip to the USA. The corridor and entrance area were decorated with large photographic portraits of Native Americans ( formerly known as Red Indians), and in the background played Native American traditional music. It reminded me of the “Sacred Spirit ” albums I used to listen to in the 90’s. It was all very confusing. Wasn’t this the same country that less than 150 years before had practised a policy of near genocide against the Native American tribes, taken over their lands and attempted to wipe out their way of life? Wasn’t this the same country that had forced the surviving Native Americans to live on reservations as if they were animals in a zoo? It was all very mysterious. Had modern Americans experienced a massive change of heart and developed a new found respect for the first inhabitants of their continent? Did they regret the atrocities and injustices of the recent past and now want to make amends?
A visit of just over 2 weeks and a bit of background reading cannot provide pat answers to these difficult questions. All I can do is throw a few observations and opinions into the mix. All I can do is raise a few points to consider.
I’ve always been interested in American history and the stories of the so-called “Wild West”. Many of them are myths of course and it is difficult trying to untangle fact from fiction. As I kid I was given a “Billy the Kid” album every Christmas. It didn’t occur to me for a long while that this publication was actually glamorising the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer. Being just a child I eagerly lapped up the exciting adventures from a time and place so different to my own. As well as cowboys, I also learnt about famous “Indian” chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Geronimo. I didn’t at first think about the morality of it all. I never stopped to think why the “white men” and “red men” were fighting or about who was “right” and who was “wrong”. I just loved the adventure and the exoticism of these larger than life characters. All this was reinforced by television and the cinema. The first programme I ever saw was “The Lone Ranger”, the adventures of a masked cowboy tackling the bad guys with the help of his faithful “Indian” friend, Tonto. There followed other TV westerns such as :”The Range Rider”, “Rawhide”, “Wagon Train” and “Bonanza” to name but a few. Westerns were a very popular genre. Movie films such as “Stage Coach”, “High Noon” and “How the West Was Won” greatly reinforced this Hollywood idea of the “Wild West” and 19th century American history. The bad guys were often : bank robbers, cattle rustlers or murderers but when “Indians” appeared they were often portrayed as “baddies” too. Whooping “Indians” in fearsome war-paint would swarm down off a ridge to attack a wagon train or a stage coach, threatening the lives of innocent white men, women and children. Native Americans were depicted as wild, murderous fiends who posed a serious threat to peace and civilisation. The U.S. Cavalry was shown as a force for the good, trying to bring the “savages” to heal and restore law and order to the west.
This view of the American west persisted for a long time, until in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, revisionist historians, authors and film makers started to challenge the accepted notions. They began to look at the story from the Native American point of view. Films such a “Little Big Man ” ( based on the Thomas Berger novel), “Soldier Blue” and Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” started to present a very different picture of events and the actions of cowboys, “Indians” and cavalry soldiers. Native Americans were now depicted as victims rather than perpetrators of aggression. They all told heart-wrenching stories of atrocities and massacres directed against the native people. The Sioux (or Lakotas), Cheyenne, Apaches and the rest, were now presented as dignified people with sophisticated cultures rather than as sub-human savages. It was an important sea-change in attitude. A new perspective had emerged at last. The story of the American West, it seemed. was much more complicated than previously thought. It presented many subtle shades of grey rather than simplistic black and white. It was an emotional journey for me, leaving behind my childish notions and realising the terrible truth. I remember crying at the end of “Little Big Man” and I am not often prone to tears.
The clincher for me was reading Dee Brown’s history of the American West from the “Indian” point of view: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a very difficult but very important read in my opinion. People have asked me why I choose to read about deeply upsetting things that have happened in the past which I can do nothing about. I know I cannot change history, but perhaps by learning about the mistakes and tragedies of the past I can make a small contribution to trying to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Also, I feel it is a sign of respect for all the people who have struggled and suffered, to learn about and acknowledge their lives. I think it’s important to remember people even though I have never met them. That’s why I feel compelled to read about the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Middle East crisis, The Cold War and so on. Lots of people seem to agree with me. Why else are the First World War battlefields and cemeteries places of “pilgrimage” for many? Why is there invariably a queue outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or crowds of people wanting to see the 9/11 monument in New York? Dee Brown details in eloquent, heart-rending prose the full tragic fate of the Native American tribes — the theft of their lands, the murders and massacres, the constantly broken treaties, the death marches, the poverty and starvation, the slaughter of the buffalo ( depended upon by the plains “Indians”) the destruction of their culture and their whole way of life. It finishes with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29th, 1890, when a band of Minneconjou Sioux, including women and children, were gunned down by the 7th cavalry while taking part in a religious ceremony known as a ghost dance. It’s a very sobering read.
So I got to learn about and understand a much fuller picture of the history of the American West than I had gleaned from childhood comics, annuals and TV shows. It has been one of the reasons why I have been reluctant to visit modern USA although I know its present citizens cannot be held responsible for what happened in their country’s past. I remember being made to feel very uncomfortable at a concert in Manchester by Buffy St Marie around the year 1970. It was at a time when I was really getting into American popular music and was looking forward to experiencing a performance by an artist with such a thrilling voice and such powerful songs.( e.g. “The Universal Soldier.) However, many of the audience, including my girlfriend and I, ended up squirming in our seats when we were subjected to a sustained lecture on racism, prejudice, discrimination and injustice aimed at the Native Americans. I think Buffy St Marie is a Cree.
I know this story of the persecution of a minority by a more powerful majority has been repeated throughout the world and across the centuries. It is not just an American thing. The treatment of the Aborigines in Australia has been abominable and racist attitudes still persist today, I believe. Going back in time, the English have not exactly been peaceful towards the Welsh, Scots and Irish. Atrocities and injustices litter the history of the British Isles. I have just finished watching a TV history of the reign of King Edward 1 — the “Hammer of the Scots” ( and the Welsh). It didn’t make for easy viewing even though it was about events way back in medieval times. Then there are all the abominations of the British Empire, the French Empire, the earlier Spanish Empire and all the other Empires one can think of. Empire building gets across the message that “Might is Right”. It’s the politics of the school- yard bully and is sadly a common occurrence all over the world today. Tragically, when wave after wave of European settlers followed in the wake of Columbus and came to colonise the “New World”, the writing was on the wall for all the native inhabitants who had been living relatively peacefully there for many centuries.
So why the possible change of attitude? It’s easier to be magnanimous to one’s enemy after he or she has been crushed. Maybe many American are genuinely sorry for what their ancestors did. Now the Native Americans are no longer a threat to the acquisition of land and resources, their customs, art, religion and culture can be properly appreciated and respected. Was this what was happening at Denver airport? Well to a certain extent the answer is “yes”, I think. Apparently, the site of the airport was originally a native American burial ground. Therefore the Mayor of Denver met with tribal elders to gain permission for the building to go ahead. I don’t know how much choice they really had, but at least they were being respected and their opinions sought. The spirits of the dead were appeased by removing them to another specially consecrated site. The airport was built on a tepee tent design to further placate the spirits. A native American exhibition called “The Spirit of the People” has been installed at the airport. It tells the story of native Americans in the Colorado area. Tribal images and stories are displayed along with 31 large-scale photographs of contemporary American “Indians”. This is what I saw and what surprised me so much as I wended my way to the passport queue.
All through my trip through north-west and south west United States I kept asking the questions -“Are todays Native Americans or First Nation Americans treated fairly and equally?” and “Has history been re-written to tell both sides of the story of the American West and the so called Indian wars?” They are impossible questions to answer fully. But I did notice some encouraging signs that the balance is being redressed. For instance, in South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore Monument to the four white Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln, is now being balanced by an even bigger mountain monument to chief Crazy Horse, just 17 miles away in another part of the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse monument, begun in 1948, is far from finished. When it is completed it will probably be the largest sculpture in the world. It has been created by Korczali Ziolkowski and his family. Korczali himself died in 1982 but the work has been continued by his wife ( now also deceased) and children. When finished it will show the Sioux leader astride his horse, pointing to the horizon, stating:” My lands are where my dead lie buried.” The monument was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, who declared:” My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to now the red man has got heroes too.” The Crazy Horse centre also includes an extensive and impressive native America cultural centre and gift shop.
In fact, everywhere we travelled we came across Native American jewellery, arts and crafts for sale. Much of it is of a high quality. My wife Chris bought a coral necklace and some beautiful earrings. I bought a lovely little badger fetish from a native American crafts shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The native America arts and crafts were very popular with our group. But this raises another awkward question. ” Have the native American people been rehabilitated to a certain extent because they are good for tourism?” If the horrors of the past can be brushed under the carpet then the native American tribes can present an exotic and fascinating alternative to mainstream USA. Again, the question is impossible to answer but is worth a thought or two. When we visited Monument Valley in southern Utah we went on a spectacular 4×4 ride to see the huge sandstone buttes and mesas at close quarter. Our driver and guide was Mike Chee, a local Navajo “Indian.” This is because the main part of the valley is on Navajo reservation land. Tourism obviously plays a big, important part in the Navajo economy. The place was heaving with visitors, all spending dollars at the Navajo shop and restaurant as well as on the bumpy, dusty guided tours around the iconic monuments. However it was slightly sad, in my opinion, that Mike felt he had to sing us a couple of Navajo chant-like songs. It was interesting and entertaining but I think maybe his main aim was to enhance his tips. The songs had been largely stripped of their cultural context or significance and were now merely novelty entertainment for visitors. It reminded me slightly of Sitting Bull, the great Lakota Sioux leader who, in his later years was reduced to entertaining the crowds in Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West Show. It was a long way from his warriors’ great victory over George Custer’s 7th cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876.
We visited the site of that famous battle. It is now called the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Memorial in southern Montana. For a long time it had been known as the Custer Battlefield National Memorial. This was because the myth of General George Custer’s glorious and heroic Last Stand had been perpetuated by his widow, Libby, the US press, countless paintings and books and many films such as “They Died with their Boots on.” The myth was that Custer and his vastly outnumbered men fought bravely and with total discipline against a savage horde of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho “Indians.” Custer with his long,flowing blond locks was an American hero who fought gallantly to the end against evil redskins who were threatening civilisation. What actually happened however, was that Custer and his 700 men attacked the greatest plains Indian camp in history without bothering to check out the strength of the “enemy” first. The Sioux, Cheyenne and their allies had gathered together in peace for safety and only wanted to be left alone to live their traditional nomadic, hunting lives. Obviously they fought back when the soldiers came charging into their camp intent on killing as many “Indians” as possible. The cavalry had a record of attacking native American camps, killing women, children and old people as well as warriors. when asked why the US soldiers killed little “Indian” children, a common answer was “nits grow into lice.” Custer had gained a reputation as an Indian hunter and was heavily implicated in the massacre of a large village of southern Cheyenne. Now he was attacking another “Indian” camp but had bitten off far more than he could chew. Custer himself and the soldiers under his direct command were wiped out in well under an hour. One native American witness said they were killed in about the time it would take a hungry man to eat his dinner! Other native reports tell of soldiers panicking, taking their own lives or shooting each other in suicide pacts. Another detachment of cavalry under Major Reno was heavily depleted but hung on in a desperate defensive position until rescue eventually came after the great Sioux/Cheyenne camp had moved on.
Thus a more rounded story of Little Big Horn is told these days. Both sides of the story are known. The battlefield site now has a memorial to the native Americans who died as well as the soldiers of the 7th cavalry. Red marker stones now show where Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell, standing alongside white markers showing where cavalry soldiers perished. The book shop and exhibition also represent both sides of the story.
It is here where the tale of the battle becomes grey rather than convenient black and white. It seems native American warriors fought and died on both sides. Crow and Arikara scouts perished with Custer and his men. Their lands had been taken by the Sioux and they saw cooperating with the white man as the best way of getting it back. In fact, the battlefield site is on the present day Crow Reservation and we were shown around by a female Crow guide. The “Indian” scouts are now honoured in the memorial. So now the full, messy story is told instead of the grossly simplistic myth of “Custer’s Last Stand.” This, more than anything else I saw, persuaded me that native Americans are now being treated with more dignity and respect. It seems they are no longer officially vilified. They are no longer described as “lice”. Similar respect for the native American way of life was shown at “Tatanka” near Deadwood, a visitor’s centre owned by Kevin Costner and dedicated to the days when the plains “Indians” hunted the buffalo in peace. We were given a very interesting talk by Phil Redbird, a Lakota Sioux and we learnt a lot about a way of life which existed before the invasion of the white settlers.
I think attitudes to native America peoples have changed. By how much it is impossible to say. Myths have been busted and a new respect is being shown, at least in official circles. But is this only because the native Indians have mostly given up their old way of life and learnt the ways of the white man? Possibly the surprising display at Denver Airport wasn’t so misleading after-all. Hopefully, modern Native Americans have a better chance of making their way in life although I couldn’t help noticing that the reservation lands we passed through in Utah and Arizona looked arid and of very poor quality. I wonder what the real story is? I cannot help recalling the ironic “joke” that Mike Chee told while showing us around his Navajo land –” Question – How did the Navajo get to live in this place? Answer — They made a reservation!”
I’ve been putting off going back to America for many years, upset by its aggressive foreign policy and its seemingly rampant gun culture. Over the decades, I’ve lost count of the countries the Americans have invaded or bombed and the horrific mass shootings in their schools, malls, cinemas and any other public space one can think of.
I first visited the States in the early 90’s to take my son, Ian, to the Florida theme parks – Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World and the like. They were great but seemed to represent a fantasy world rather than the real America. Our experience got more authentic when we drove on the Florida Turnpike from Orlando down to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. We sampled the laid-back beach culture, the pastel coloured Art Deco hotels and the Latin-flavoured melting pot of cultures. I remember the shiny diners with the Michelle Pfeiffer style waitresses ( in my dreams) offering endless refills from their coffee pots held high. I remember the swaying palms, the blue skies, the blazing sun, the big, brown pelicans perched around the marina, the dramatic clusters of skyscapers, the tropical storms, the “Have a nice days” and the sudden change of expression when a tip failed to please. It was fascinating and highly enjoyable. Ian must have enjoyed it too for he later returned to study at Miami University as part of his American Studies degree.
However, that’s a long time ago in a pre-digital, pre-Internet age ( at least for me.) This year, 2014, I finally had the time, the money and the inclination to return over the “pond.” I felt I had to go soon before I got too old and too decrepit for long-haul flights. Of course, I’d actually been to America many times in the past decades, the America of all those Westerns, road-movies, rom-coms and film-noir on the silver screen. Then there was the America immortalised in thousands of pop, rock and blues songs that have formed much of the soundtrack of my life. America has also invaded my own country, the UK, through its malls, out of town/car orientated shopping centres, fast food chains, coffee shops and even Drive Thru’s. On top of all this is the America of Silicon valley, the Internet, social networking, smart phones and all the bewildering paraphernalia of the communications revolution. In many ways it has been as if I was in America already, the UK often being described as its 51st State. But not even all that can compare with the real thing — the real American experience. No amount of High Definition can adequately prepare one for the immensity and grandeur of the landscapes and the incredible variety of wild life.. Suddenly, it seemed incredible that I had only been once.
So it was that in September, my wife, Chris and I found ourselves on a near 10 hour flight from London to Denver, Colorado, the “Mile High City.” Faced with the myriad of attractions that such a vast country has to offer, it was a daunting task deciding where to go. The lure of New York City was almost irresistible as were the attractions of San Francisco and California on the opposite coast. Many people visit the fascinating cities and attractions of the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, but omit the huge mass of land in between. Jonathan Raban in his travel book ” Hunting for Mr Heartbreak”, writes about the “fly-over States”. How many people visit Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle in the west and then at some other time: New York, Washington DC or Boston in the east, but miss out the vast continent that lies in between? Wyoming, Montana or Utah, despite their incredible natural wonders, are only worth a brief glimpse through the clouds before in-flight entertainment on the back of the seat in front re-grabs the attention.
I decided that the most compelling parts of the USA had to be: the Great Plains, the great high Deserts and the great Rocky Mountain ranges made famous in countless Hollywood westerns. I wanted to visit the America of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I wanted to find out more about : Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. I yearned to see that little house on the prairie, visualise the wagon trains of the recent past trundling along the Oregon trail, witness the scenic wonders of Yellowstone Park, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. So it was that we did an epic road trip through: Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and finally Nevada, starting in Denver and ending up on Las Vegas.
The experience was spectacular and memorable. If I had to sum up my impressions of North West and South West USA in one word, that word would be “BIG”. I saw big skies, big landscapes, and big buildings ( in the cities). I ate big meals and encountered a lot of big people. As a supposed writer, I know I shouldn’t be over-using one adjective. In subsequent paragraphs, please feel free to substitute : “huge”, “immense”, “vast”,” gigantic” or “enormous” whenever you feel like it. The sheer size of everything was simply awe-inspiring and is the most indelible impression left with me. No wonder many Americans don’t even own a passport. They might think — “Why travel abroad when America offers just about everything?” What they are short of, in my opinion, is history and a rich artistic culture. The USA is a very young nation and still struggles with its sense of identity. Thus there is a lot of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. However the States offer natural wonders in abundance. The great rolling plains seem endless. The mountains are towering and formidable. We got neck ache staring up at the huge, sheer cliffs of Zion Canyon and suffered temporary vertigo gazing into the chasm of the Grand Canyon.
The American people were unstintingly friendly and gregarious. There was no hint of that aggressive stance their country often presents to the world. It was great meeting American people even though we got off to a slightly sinister start by being photographed and finger-printed by an unsmiling passport officer at Denver. Everyone else we met made up for that bad start. I’m glad I overcame my prejudices and went to see all those wonderful sights. Chris and I always felt safe — we didn’t see one gun or meet one threatening person. One gets a warped impression if one only judges a place on the TV news. Every country has its problems and contradictions, but the natural splendours and wild life I witnessed swept away any lingering doubts. I was bowled over and glad that I had at last returned to the USA.
It’s twenty minutes past midnight but the sun is still streaming through the window. In fact my neighbour has just had to pull the blind down. All my friends and relatives back in Britain will be tucked up in bed as their day is over and night has fallen. However, my day just seems to go on and on. I am travelling backwards in time, constantly chasing the sun and escaping the moon.
I’m flying westwards to Denver, Colorado. It’s another “holiday of a lifetime” that I have been lucky enough to indulge in since retirement. The plane is full of silver-haired retirees like myself. We are getting in our long-haul journeys while we can. Our watches tell us we are in the small hours, but it’s only early evening local time. A surreal situation has emerged. Our minds are still active but our bodies are weary. The long journey is messing with our internal clocks.
The inside of the aircraft cabin is dominated by the unrelenting drone of the engines. I have been trapped here for 7 hours with another near 3 hours still to go. If I allow myself to think about it, I might well have a panic attack. I instruct myself to stay calm and breathe steadily. I’m distracted by looking down on to the white Canadian clouds, momentarily recalling Joni Mitchell recalling “life’s illusions.” Every now and then I get up to flex my legs and waggle my toes to try to avoid getting a DVT. My mouth feels stale and my body very tired. I started this endless day clean-shaven and fresh, but now I sport the sandpaper cheeks of unwelcome designer stubble.
It should be the middle of the night but I’ve just been served a sandwich and a cup of tea. It’s bizarre. Now I’ve been given a scone, a small pot of cream and some jam which is squeezed out of a tiny tube. I try to eat and drink while cramped in my seat. The electronic screen in front of me says we are flying over Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba at 38,000 feet. It’s not often one gets to say that!
One of the great things about travel is that there is always somewhere or something new to discover. The World is supposed to be shrinking fast, what with the internet, mobile phones and the rise and rise of social networking. However there are still many new places to find out about and new “secrets” to unearth. A recent family get- together in south-east Sicily was a case in point. Until recently, mention Sicily to me and I would have conjured up images of hot sun, dusty towns, poverty, corruption and Mafia godfathers hiding behind their shades. I might also have thrown in a fiery, erupting Mount Etna and the sparkling Mediterranean. I would never have thought of a string of outstanding 18th century Baroque towns listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. But like I said, that’s travel for you!
We travelled to the Val di Noto region in the south east corner of the island. In January, 1693, the whole of this area was devastated by a massive earthquake plus a follow-up tsunami. There were 60,000 victims ( about half the population) and the area destroyed covered 5,600 square kms. 45 towns and cities were razed to the ground. The reaction of the locals was not to reconstruct what had stood before, but to built completely new cities in the Baroque style, fashionable at that time. It was a wonderful late flowering of Sicilian Baroque, the last hurrah for the baroque movement in Europe. Eight of these cities are now World Heritage Sites because of the uniqueness and completeness of their style. They were all built in a busy 50 year period which led to their centres presenting a wonderfully homogeneous and harmonious architectural picture. If one screens out the cars, telegraph wires and mobile phones, a visit to Ragusa, Modica, Noto or any of their sister baroque cities, is like travelling back 250 years into the mid- 18th century. All that is missing are the powdered wigs and sedan chairs.
We didn’t visit all 8 towns and cities on the UNESCO list. That would have been too tiring, especially under the hot, summer sun. It would also have been inappropriate for a mostly relaxing family vacation that included 2 very young children. However, I did get to explore : Ragusa Ibla, Scicli and Modica as well as Comiso which is not on the official list but still contains several interesting, historical churches and palaces which give its centre a distinctly Baroque air. I keep stressing that this area is still a semi- secret but this may not remain so for too much longer as Ryanair and others have just begun cheap flights to the newly opened Comiso airport ( an ex NATO base) and the region is featured on the popular television series: “Inspector Montalbano.” Information boards featuring the cult, bald Italian detective are already springing up in various filming locations for fans on the Montalbano trail. Luckily for those like me who enjoy a quiet holiday, Montalbano mania has not quite reached Harry Potter heights so the secret is safe for the time being.
South east Sicily is a region of high, rolling hills topped by rocky outcrops. They are criss-crossed by dry stone walls and speckled with carob, almond and olive trees. The hills are punctuated by deep valleys spanned by dizzyingly high bridges. The lower land is very fertile and heavily market- gardened with miles of plastic tunnels, green houses and irrigation pipes, nurturing: peppers, tomatoes, grape vines, aubergines, courgettes and the like. The little towns and villages are indeed quite dusty, but are enlivened by vivid splashes of colour from bougainvillea, azalea and other flowering shrubs ( pink, purple, white, red and orange.) We also spotted flowering cacti, groves of lemon trees, palms and bananas. For most of our visit we stayed in a rustic villa between Scicli and Sampiere near the coast. Every evening, as the sun dipped, the palms, lemon trees and spiky cacti in the garden, slowly turned into dark silhouettes and the sky would fill with swooping swallows and fluttering bats. A low chorus of cicadas would strike up, occasionally interrupted by the loud hoot of an owl or the squeaky call of a gecko. It made a nice change from North Yorkshire!
Before arriving at the villa, my wife, Chris, and I stayed in Ragusa, one of the aforementioned baroque towns. Ragusa is actually 2 towns separated by a deep ravine spanned by 3 bridges. After the earthquake of 1693, the town was rebuilt on higher ground in baroque style, its streets based on a grid system. This upper town is now known as Ragusa Superiore and has some fine buildings. However the real gem is Ragusa Ibla, lower down on the other side of the gorge. This is on the site of the original town and was rebuilt by its citizens following the old, medieval layout. It clings to a rocky outcrop with spectacular views all around. Ibla is a charming maze of narrow streets, stepped alleys, little piazzas and secluded courtyards. It is largely pedestrianized and is a delight to wander around. A jumble of glowing limestone streets clings to the hillside. Ibla features 14 World heritage buildings in an area of less than one square kilometre. As one climbs up and down the narrow streets and stone staircases, there is a parade of great views — pan-tiled roofs, bell towers, domes and fancy facades. We explored it at our leisure, trying to slip into the slow pace of life that is a Sicilian characteristic. Everything was quiet. We slipped in and out of sun and shadows. Washing hung from the many fancy balconies. Gargoyle like faces grinned down at us and the ornate, wrought- iron fences sprouted delicate metal flowers. Beautiful creamy-yellow swallowtail butterflies danced figure-of-eight patterns in the blue sky. The scent of blossom was in the air and greeny-brown lizards raced in and out of cracks in the stone walls.
Sicilian baroque architecture is famous for its exuberant and theatrical style. Churches and palaces are richly ornamented with sculpture featuring grotesque, grinning faces and putti ( chubby male children similar to cherubs.) It features graceful convex or concave curves, eye-catching use of light and shade ( perfect for the sunny climate), grand staircases and ornate balconies. The prime example of this in Ragusa Ibla is the Duomo of San Giorgio which stands like a striking wedding cake at the top of a sloping piazza split by six palms. It’s a masterpiece of Sicilian baroque by Rosario Gagliardi and took forty years to build. later, it was a bit of reverse culture shock to visit a “normal” town, mainly consisting of modern apartment blocks and not featuring anything from the 18th century at all. Only when we left it did we realize that we had been temporarily “lost” in a sort of secret world,largely cut off from 21st century realities.
Ragusa is up and coming as a tourist destination. The old centre of Ibla has been restored thanks to EU money. There are now little boutique hotels and a generous sprinkling of cafes and restaurants. It even has a corny little tourist “train” complete with a multi-lingual recorded commentary. However, it was fairly quiet, even in late June when we went. Outside August it is little visited. Many of the houses are still neglected or derelict reflecting the unemployment and poverty that the area has suffered. It mostly remains a Sicilian secret.
Modica, like Ragusa, consists of 2 urban centres, rebuilt after the late 17th century earthquake. The older centre ( the Storico Alto) is perched high on the rocky top of a steep hill. Again like Ragusa, upper and lower Modica has 2 competing cathedrals ( duomos). St Georges Cathedral, the one we visited, has an impressive wine-glass shaped stone staircase leading up to the main entrance. ( Just like its sister cathedral in Ragusa Ibla.) In the past the worshippers must have thought they were ascending into heaven. It’s another fantastic, curvy confection of towers, domes, pillars and statues, all topped by a soaring belfry. It is approached on either side by two steep, winding sets of staircases and is fronted by a broad terrace which commands grand views of the lower town and valley far below. Inside, the Duomo is rich in silver work and paintings and features a Spanish style, high baroque alter which survived the quake.
Sicily was ruled for many years by the Kings of Spain as part of the Crown of Aragon. It has also in its long history been invaded and/or conquered by the Ancient Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Saracens and the Normans. One legacy of the Spanish rule is chocolate. Modica is famous throughout Italy for its chocolate and is full of little chocolate shops where one can sample a host of different, delicious flavours from little bowls, spread out along the counter. Chocolate making is now a revered 400 year old tradition. Cacao (Spanish for cocoa?) from South America, was brought to Sicily by the Spaniards. Modica specialises in making granulous chocolate with exotic flavours such as chilli pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, jasmine and orange. The recipes and methods descend directly from the Aztecs.
Modica is delightful jumble of old buildings, clinging higgledy-piggledy to a steep hillside. It is another 18th century, baroque paradise. It descends into a deep gorge spanned by the 300 metres high Guerrieri bridge. We explored it in the hot sun, when only mad dogs and Englishmen were about, but the tightly packed buildings gave plenty of shade and we could always retreat into a cool café for a refreshing granita.(sweet flavoured crushed ice drink).
Scicli was our nearest town and we ended up there several times. It’s a very confusing place to drive through and we ended up going down one way streets the wrong away, attracting much angry gesticulation from the locals. Even the sat- nav failed to fathom-out the one way system. It’s old baroque town is not as concentrated as Ragusa or Modica. A sprinkle of extravagant churches and the odd palace are scattered around. The main focus is the large Piazza Italia with its pavement cafes and gardens. At one end is a fancy baroque church while at the other is an old cinema from the 1930s or 40s. It reminded me straight away of the old picture house in the Italian cult film “Cinema Paradiso”, sitting as it is in the same sort of hot, southern Italian, backwater town. Scicli nestles in yet another gorge, overlooked by a towering limestone mass upon which the large disused church of San Matteo stands. There are also very old cave dwellings up there but it was too hot and too tiring to go climbing.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive travelogue of Sicily. You can read the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet for that. There are many outstanding attractions that we missed out. We did get to see some ancient Greek temples at Arigento but never made it to Siracusa. Taormina, Mount Etna or Palermo. Holidays are for relaxing and being together as well as sight seeing and we had a great time doing just that. It just means I will have to return to Sicily to see some of the things I missed.
We spent the last day of our holiday in Comiso as it was a stone’s throw from the airport. We didn’t have high expectations of it but it proved to be a delight. We stayed at a lovely guest house on an old piazza. The view from our balcony included a baroque church, the keep of a 16th century Aragonese castle and another old theatre/cinema. The hospitality at the guest house was outstanding as it was in our place in Ragusa and at the villa. Sicilians are famous for their wonderful hospitality. We wondered round the narrow streets of the old town and visited an extravagantly decorated baroque church. In the evening, we watched groups of old people playing bridge in the floodlit cloisters of a religious building, now turned into the public gallery. We also saw a wedding with both the bride and groom wearing white and the guests showering them with rice instead of confetti. They descended the church steps on a white carpet and eventually drove off in a bright red sports car. We also saw anti-fascist monuments in a park reminding us of a dark chapter in Italy’s more recent history.
On the morning of our last full day in Sicily we sat in the old piazza waiting to check in to our nearby Comiso guest house. The setting was very atmospheric and picturesque. Opposite us was the aforementioned Spanish castle keep, while behind us, a steep flight of steps climbed up to a large baroque church. Worshippers quietly came and went. Old men stood or sat on street corners, chewing the fat and watching the world go by. Hundreds of dark swallows, out to catch their breakfast, soared and swirled around in a fabulous, acrobatic flying display. Who needs the Red Arrows? It was a lovely relaxing start to our last day.
Finally we were back at the tiny airport of Comiso which has its own piece of history. It is adjoined by an eerie ghost town — empty streets, boarded up houses and even an abandoned cinema. Nearby were rusting, menacing coils of barbed wire and aggressive keep out signs. This used to be an American run NATO airbase which housed land- launched cruise missiles in the 1980s.( it reminded me of the faslane military base on the west coast of Scotland, being completely out of keeping with the surrounding area.) A big peace camp used to surround it manned by women from Italy, Europe and further afield. It was modelled on the similar anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common in England. The deadly missiles were removed in 1987 after a treaty was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union. After that both the military and the peace camps were disbanded and the place drifted steadily into obscurity until Ryanair discovered it and put it back on the map.
Our trip to this still mostly secret region of Sicily was a revelation in many ways. Every trip to a previously unvisited destination is. One can read and plan to the nth degree but one can never really be prepared for the surprising reality of a place. I saw enough to make me want to return for more. The history, the landscapes, the architecture, the hospitality, the relaxing pace of life, the eccentric driving ( sometimed decidedly dangerous), the sunny weather and the food ( despite me being a vegetarian), all combined to make this a fascinating visit. I didn’t see the famous volcano but did experience the consequences of another major seismic activity over 300 years ago — a string of dazzling Baroque towns in a little known corner of Europe. It was a very good trip.
Last Friday, June 6th, 2014, it was impossible to switch on the telly in Britain without being assailed by news footage of the 70th Anniversary Commemorations of D Day. The events in Normandy, in 1944, received saturation coverage in the media. Anyone who is anyone seemed to have been there, from Obama to Putin, taking in Hollande, Merkel and Cameron and many others on the way. Even our 88 year old Queen made a special effort to be there, along with prominent members of her family, many of them regaled in fancy dress. I wonder where and how Prince Charles earned that splendid array of medals that adorned his pseudo military uniform? I know people who centred their holidays around D Day, going on cruises and tours that took in the invasion beaches, the military cemeteries, the monuments and everything else connected with that momentous event. Others have purchased “D Day 70″ pins, pens and coffee cups or even Spitfire cufflinks. ( courtesy of the British legion and others.)However, as I witnessed all the: ceremonies, marches, wreath laying, commemorative services and grandiose speeches, I experienced very mixed feelings indeed.
First of all, I couldn’t help noticing the massive irony that this commemoration ( celebration?) of a major development in one war ( the Second World War), took place in the middle of a whole series of events marking the centennial anniversary of another, earlier conflict: the First World War. Wasn’t the latter supposed to be the war to end all wars? What happened? Some of the tours laid on for war tourists even mixed up the 2 wars in their itineraries. There must have been much potential for confusion. One day, the tourists would be at Ypres or on the Somme, remembering the tragic sacrifices of millions of soldiers in the 1914-1918 conflict. Then on the next day they would be Arramonches, thinking about the equally tragic sacrifices made by another unlucky generation of soldiers on D Day and in the rest of the 1939-1945 conflict. Linking the 2 wars together, it appears that millions gave up their lives in the first configuration not to achieve lasting peace but to gain a mere 20 years of peace in Europe. What a terrible waste! ( the result of a punitive and vindictive peace treaty at Versailles, that sowed the seeds of the next conflict.) Yet I didn’t notice any speeches highlighting the sheer folly of war. Rather they concentrated on its supposed glories. Soldiers on both sides were extremely brave and it is only right to remember them and salute their supreme sacrifice. It is right to call them heroes. Yet they could also be regarded as luckless pawns in a lethal power game played out by their leaders. How much did Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hirohito or Hitler really care about the soldiers, sailors and airmen ( and women) they had thrown into the fray? They cared very little I suspect. The same goes for the millions of civilians whose lives were destroyed or ruined by that terrible war.
Another thing that I am very uncomfortable about is that in Britain in particular, the Second World War, including D Day has become an important part of the entertainment industry. I have already mentioned the numerous war tours that people go on for their vacations. Then there are the countless films, television programmes, DVDs, shows, books and magazines that have been produced about World War 2. Even though it finished nearly 70 years ago, it sometimes seems as if it was happening only yesterday. Every time England play Germany in a football match for instance, the war is instantly resurrected in the tabloid media with the Germans being casually referred to as the enemy and named Fritz or the Hun. It’s good not to forget, but do we need to be constantly reminded of a horrific conflict that happened 3 generations ago against a foe that is now our ally and close trading partner? I think this constant harping back to the past is a hindrance to the UK moving forward and fully embracing its place in a modern, peaceful Europe.
Despite all this, I do think it’s extremely important to show our respect and gratitude to the tens of thousands who risked or gave up their lives on our behalf. I have taken school children on educational visits to wartime sites such as Arramonches, where the Mulberry Harbour was constructed, or Pointe du Hoc, a headland between Omaha and Juno beaches where the American soldiers landed. It was a chilling and sobering experience to see the German bunkers and pill-boxes on top of the cliffs and imagine the American servicemen being mown down by machine gun fire as they attempted to climb up. Similarly I have been greatly moved by visits to British, American and German military cemeteries in northern France. One child commented on the tender ages of many of the fallen and seeing the German graves made her realise that the so called “enemy” were human beings too. Thus I do agree with the sentiments behind the 70th anniversary commemorations if not with the over the top way they have been conducted.
One common justification for commemorating and celebrating our participation in World War 2 was that it was a “just war.” Surely this was a straightforward fight against an evil dictator, Hitler, and his vile, totalitarian Nazi regime, the Third Reich. The Nazis invaded other countries, killed millions, pillaged and destroyed property,took away fundamental freedoms, set up slave-labour and death camps and ruined innumerable lives. What could be wrong in commemorating our struggle and ultimate victory against such despicable monsters? What is wrong with being proud to be the “good guys” who fought and defeated the “bad guys”? Unfortunately I think this is all a rather dangerous simplification.
First of all there is the inconvenient fact that both the British and the French were partly fighting to defend their worldwide empires. For instance both these countries came into disastrous contact with the Japanese in the far east because they had already taken over Asian countries such as India, Burma, Malaya and Indo China, depriving these people of their independence and stripping them of their valuable resources. Was this a case of the good guys fighting for peoples’ freedom from tyranny? I don’t think so. The same applies to their colonies in Africa and the Middle East. Here they were fighting for their own vested interests rather than for the benefit of the local populations. The British and the French even indirectly fought each other when they were supposed to be allies in the cause of the good. For example, in the 1940s the British plotted against French interests in Syria and the French supported Jewish terrorists who were killing British soldiers in Palestine. All this was happening at the very time of the launching of Operation Overlord on D Day in 1944. So the overall cause of the Allies was hardly clear cut. Indeed it was a very shady affair indeed.
Then we come to the very problematic case of the Soviet Union, which started the Second World War as a friend of Hitler’s Germany and ended it on the side of the Western allies following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. If we were the good guys fighting to free Europe from Nazi tyranny, how did we end up getting into bed with Joseph Stalin, who ran an equally terrifying, totalitarian regime in the USSR and ended up violently conquering or controlling most of eastern Europe? How ironic and shameful that Britain entered the war to defend Poland’s independence, but finished it by allowing another dictator to take over and control that very same country. It seems that Churchill, in a summit in Moscow, suggested that Stalin could control Poland, the Baltic states and other east European countries in exchange for the British having control over Greece. (Churchill was still fixated with the need to protect the trade routes to India via the Suez canal, which is of course near to Greece.) Stalin couldn’t believe his luck and readily agreed. This arrangement was rubber stamped by Roosevelt and/or Truman at subsequent allied summits in Tehran and Yalta. Such was the fate of millions of people sealed by a trio of “great” statesman. Apparently, Churchill demonstrated what would happen to Poland using three match-sticks. The lands in the east would be swallowed up by the Soviet Union. He demonstrated this by taking 2 match-sticks away. The Poles would then be compensated by getting German lands to their west. Churchill showed this by putting the 2 match-sticks down on the table again but further to the left. The whole of Poland would thus move to the west. Stalin smiled and quickly agreed. So the worthy cause that Britain had entered the war against Germany for –ie to fight for Poland’s liberty, — was now abandoned This was all done without bothering to consult the Poles themselves, even though the Polish Government in exile was based in London. The Poles were betrayed by their so-called allies in the interests of power politics. In the end, even the part of Poland that remained free of direct Soviet conquest was still taken over by a hardline Communist regime that took its orders from Moscow. The same thing happened in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. For the people of these countries, plus the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,the Second World War didn’t really end until the fall of the USSR in 1989.
D Day is rightly celebrated as a turning point in the Second World War. Now the Nazis stopped advancing and began their long retreat back to Berlin. So was it all good news in Europe from there on in? Unfortunately this interpretation just looks at events from the point of view of the Western allies. OK — France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway were thankfully freed from Nazi tyranny. That was obviously very good news for all concerned. However the picture of the last years of the European war does not look quite so rosy if one studies what happened in the east . The Baltic states and Poland suffered their third brutal invasion in just 5 or 6 years. First the Soviet Red Army had invaded, protected by the notorious Nazi-Soviet non- aggression pact. Thousands were killed or deported to the Gulags of Siberia. Horrific massacres took place such as the murder of 21,000 Polish army officers at Katyn. Then these poor countries were invaded and conquered a second time, by the Nazis, who treated them just as poorly. Finally they were re-invaded and taken over by the Red Army on its murderous march towards Berlin. Any non- communists were thought of as the enemy of the USSR and treated just like the Germans. For the long suffering people of eastern Europe, D Day was not a harbinger of hope but just a continuation of despair. Apparently, General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Western Allies’ supreme commander, ordered his forces to advance very slowly towards Berlin in order to save American lives. It seems that he cynically decided to let the Soviets and the Germans slug it out as he presumably regarded Russian and German lives as less important than American and British ones. This deliberately slow advance allowed the Red Army to wreak havoc in Eastern Europe. Mass murder, widespread looting, wanton destruction and mass rape was the result, particularly when the Russian soldiers got to Germany. No Germans, particularly the women, were safe. It is a horrific tale, completely uninfluenced by the events of D Day and the Allied invasion of the west. Once the Soviets entered a country, they or their local communist stooges didn’t let it have any democracy or freedom for 4 long decades until 1989.
So D Day was a great and important event. Many very brave allied soldiers lost their lives in order to clear western Europe of evil Nazi rule. It must have been terrifying landing on the beaches and being sprayed by German bullets. Many soldiers sacrificed their lives to bring freedom to millions of people. However, it is dangerous to over-simplify and over romanticise that day. For many people in eastern Europe the battle of Stalingrad was far more significant. Once the German advance into Russia had been stopped, the Red Army could be unleashed on its murderous and savage advance towards Berlin. D day was not important for the people of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and many others. For them it did not signify the start of their road to freedom, but rather a continuation of totalitarian control and captivity. Their fate had already been sealed by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in their cynical summits. Similarly in the colonies of the British and French Empires, Allied victory in the war against Germany and Japan merely swapped one controlling power for another. Freedom was not on the agenda.
It is a shame that the media and the world’s leaders have chosen to present us with a highly selective version of what actually happened in the Second World War and have exaggerated the importance and significance of D Day. As is often the case, the real picture is not black and white but a particularly murky shade of grey.