Monday, 30 April 2012

Romania loved France and France permitted herself to be loved

In the late 19th. century, 'Romania loved France and France permitted herself to be loved.'

We all know that feeling. I certainly do, at least.

Norman Tebbit on David Cameron, emails and homosexuality

Norman Tebbit, who was eighty last month, is an absolutely lovely man and and very intelligent indeed. Here he is on tremendous form and his wit and sheer niceness shine through. Yet it is interesting that people extol the charm of Michael Foot who was disastrously wrong about everything and who took money from the KGB and bristle at the thought of Lord Tebbit whom Foot called famously a semi-house trained polecat. I do not say Foot was a traitor nor believe he was but he was effectively an enemy of his country. 

I also greatly hate the May Day bank holiday he created, a completely un-British, rootless, pointless thing, like a concrete bunker in a lovely piece of pasture land. He could have chose one week before, 23rd. April,  St. George's Day and Shakespeare's birthday.

Or maybe Foot did not take money from the KGB. Someone told me he won large damages in court when he sued the man who alleged that he did. He did not need a bribe to be on the Left in any case. I think this squib applies to Foot and the Russians. 
You cannot hope to twist/Thank God the British journalist/But seeing what the man will do/Unbribed there's no occasion to.

Lord Tebbit's blog post is very interesting on how technology has changed government and politics.

I was foolish enough to dislike his and Mrs Thatcher's policies but I met him at a drinks party at the Cambridge Union in around 1982 and was enormously impressed by his mind - and we Cambridge undergraduates were great intellectual snobs - also by his charm. Curious that he is now a social conservative - he and the Thatcherites were not in the 1980s, one of the things that made me dislike them, along with what I mistakenly thought was their indifference to the poor. 

He was a great debater and here is characteristically and effortlessly conclusive on homosexuality and Christianity. 

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The new despotism

David Hume said 'nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few'. 

I have just read a wonderful book which deserves to become a classic  by Stefan Hafner called Defying Hitler, an eyewitness account of how the Nazis took over German society very easily and quickly, their ideas, especially anti-Semitism, becoming widely accepted by people who would have been horrified by them in the 1920s. I was reminded inter alia of how the ideas of political correctness have become accepted. People shop colleagues for making sexist or racist remarks, people lose their jobs for trifling jokes or get sent to prison  for saying 'Your horse is gay' or sending tweets using the word 'nigger'. A possibly disturbed  woman with a history of depression who rudely and with many four letter words complained on a train about there being too many blacks in her country had her strange rant recorded on passengers' telephones which went viral on the net. She spent Christmas in gaol, her  daughter was taken into in care and her life devastated, much to the satisfaction of most of my Facebook friends from the British literary and journalistic worlds. And so it goes. 

Paradoxically, it is because of horror at what the Nazis did that we have this new Nazism. As Churchill said, “The fascists of the future will be called anti-fascists”.

People always draw the wrong lessons from history.

My father and George Bernard Shaw

My father's first job was as a delivery boy for Sainsbury's and on his bicycle one day he knocked down George Bernard Shaw in about 1935 or 1936. This is my family's only brush with a literary giant. My father told me Shaw retired to Ayot St. Lawrence shortly after. 

Alex Woodcock-Clarke trumped this by telling me that his stepmother's uncle, Lord Howard de Walden, on his first day in Germany in 1931 ran over Hitler. How curious, I thought, that not only that the history of the world would have been so very different had his Lordship killed Hitler but Howard de Walden would have been consumed by guilt about it till his dying day. 

Though when I said this to Alex, he said, 'That doesn't sound like him.'

My father's collision with Shaw brings to my mind Alan Bennett delivering meat to T.S.Eliot's mother-in-law. He has often told this story and did so here in a lecture:

I was born and brought up in Leeds, where my father was a butcher, and as a boy, I sometimes used to go out with the orders, delivering the meat. One of our customers was a nice woman called Mrs Fletcher, and I used to go to her house and she had a daughter called Valerie. Valerie went to London and became a secretary and she got a job with a publishing firm and did well in the firm, and became secretary to the chairman, whom she eventually married. Now the publishing firm was Faber and Faber, and the chairman was T.S. Eliot. So there was a time early in life when I thought my only connection with literature would be that I once delivered meat to T.S. Eliot's mother-in-law.
Some time after that, when we'd left the shop but were still living in Leeds, my mother came in one day and said, 'I ran into Mrs Fletcher down the road. Nice woman. She was with a tall fella, elderly, very refined. She introduced me and he passed the time of day,' and it was only some time afterwards that I realized that without it being the most seminal encounter in Western literature, my mother had met T.S. Eliot. 

Bennett adds:

...if we take T.S. Eliot to represent Art and Literature and Culture and everything in the upper case, my mother indefatigably in the lower case to represent life, then it seems to me that what I've written teeters rather indecisively between the two. 

The Oldie, a paper I do not read, apparently ran a riveting series of articles in which members of the public talked about their chance meetings with the famous. They were collected in a book and I read a review of it by Craig Brown. You could read a three volume biography of Anthony Powell and know him less well than you do after reading this story, as retold by Brown:

A plumber recalls being called out to fix a burst pipe for the novelist Anthony Powell. The plumber rang the doorbell. "An elderly man opened the door and looked at me quizzically. 'Yes,' he said. 'How can I help you?'

'Hello,' I smiled, thinking that my overalls, the toolbox in my hand and my van behind me would make my quest obvious. 'Well?' he said.

'Mr Powell?' I asked. (I pronounced the name Pow-well.) 'There is no one here of that name,' he intoned."

The plumber apologises and drives off, imagining that he has come to the wrong house. After driving around in the snow for 20 minutes, he is directed back to the same house. The same man opened the door. "This time I tried a different tack. 'Does a Mr Powell live here?' 'No,' he said. 'However, do you mean Pole?' I nodded. 'Ah! Then go round to the back door, the leak is in the kitchen.'

My great-uncle Joe once got talking to a nice cove on a park bench who turned out to be Delius.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

My London, and Welcome to It

"London has a wicked, dry and often cruel sense of humor. It is clever, literate and dramatic. It is private and taciturn, a bit of a bore, and surprisingly sentimental. And it doesn’t make friends quickly, is awkward around visitors." 

I take back completely what I said about A.A. Gill. This is a good article about London written for Americans but it seems to me sad that you can no longer distinguish between Londoners and foreign visitors.

I love London very much indeed. Disraeli said there are two countries: London and England. I love both but much prefer London. And London I have noticed in my rare trips back in the fourteen years I have lived in Romania has become happier, more polite, cleaner and has become happy in its skin. And whereas everyone seemed to hate London in the 1970s from the 1980s onwards people began to like the place and they like it even more nowadays and take pride in it, something which previously they did not. And for reasons. London used to be a shabby defeated gimcrack place, like much of England, in the James Callaghan era. 

But London (which rules England)  seems to be becoming very far removed from England. To some extent all capital cities in Western Europe are. Brussels and Oslo (Oslo?) will probably have non-white majorities in thirty years and so possibly will London. Capital cities nowadays are starting to have more in common with one another than with their hinterlands (I owe this idea to Alain Cardon). What you think about that will depend on what you think about tradition, shared values and social cohesion. I like all three but especially tradition. 

Things are in many ways much better now but I think the London of 1950, with men in detachable collars, insipid food, sexual conservatism and all white apart from lascars living near the docks also has great charm. Sans bohemians except in Fitzrovia and among some very rich people, sans the pill, sans rock music, sans central heating.

Desire is the essence of existence - Spinoza


Le désir se situe dans un champ complexe fait de nature, de culture, mais aussid'une part insondable de liberté. C'est l'accomplissement de soi à travers l'autre. Parler du désir, c'est parler d'autrui..  Malek Chebel.

Grammatical errors cost lives

I am not as conscientious a person as I wish I were, but I am rather Prussian about using will and shall correctly. 

Who was left to drown because he said, 'I will drown and no-one shall save me'?

Professor Geert Hofstede on Romania

Thank you to David Pratten for posting this link in a  comment on my site. This is an exceptionally interesting take on Romania. 

The question Professor Geert Hofstede asks in his site is also worth thinking about: will there be one big world culture in fifty years time?

A Romanian academic economist told me that he thinks in 50 years Romania will no longer exist. I said surely people will still speak Romanian in 50 years time but he looked doubtful. English is more economically useful. A young Romanian Yale graduate whom I know hopes that by that time the majority population of Europe will be African, which she says will be a fitting recompense for the sins of European colonialism.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Yes, Sir; there are two objects of curiosity, — the Christian world, and the Mahometan world

"Yes, Sir; there are two objects of curiosity, — the Christian world, and the Mahometan world. All the rest may be considered as barbarous." (Dr. Johnson.) 

I have not yet gone beyond these worlds except to Bombay, Madagascar and Mauritius. Israel does not count, being part of both the Mahometan and Christian worlds. Delhi and Agra do not count either.

I wonder if he is right. Possibly, although the Chinese and Japanese would disagree. It all depends what you makes you curious. Barbarism and civilisation are more intermingled than in his day. Look at the United States for example.

But from the tourist point of view there might objects of curiosity in South-East Asia and China. Bombay, Madagascar and Mauritius were not interesting from the architectural or historical point of view though from the point of view of food India would be peerless were it not for the medical problems.

I am off to Ethiopia, the third oldest Christian country, and Zanzibar in August as a delayed birthday present to myself and will thus stay in the Christian and Mahometan worlds. Dubai where I stay en route is also Mahometan but I am not sure if it will be an object of curiosity. How much I want to go to Sana'a in the Yemen for 24 hours but it although I am a courageous traveller it seems foolhardy to go there at the moment, alas, though I am tempted. Sana'a is certainly an object of curiosity.

Government falls

So the Romanian Government has fallen. Over lunch today my gaze kept straying from the lady I was lunching with to the television set which carried the debate live. The camera seemed very preoccupied by Elena Udrea's bottom. Actually this was nicer than Victor Ponta grinning like Alfred E. Neuman, the boy on the cover of Mad magazine.

Alfred E. Neuman ran in the 1956 U.S. Presidential election on the slogan, 'You could do worse... and always have!' Mr. Ponta who is now forming a government probably feels the same.

The Melton Breakfast by Sir Francis Grant

"The Melton Breakfast by Sir Francis Grant, R.A." which my father had as a jigsaw and which I did many times. It breaths the spirit of Surtees and virile, hierarchical mid-Victorian England. More importantly, it has wonderful red jackets. Red is my favourite colour.

Image result for The Melton Breakfast by Sir Francis Grant

Surtees is no good, by the way, unless you hunt which I do not, and I have no idea why I read so many of his books. If only I been focused instead of a promiscuous reader.. 

 Mr Jorrocks openly debauches housekeepers in a way you do not expect in a Victorian novel, but sporting novelists and their readers evidently preserved a little of the old eighteenth-century licence. 

By the way, I have no interest in horses (beautiful and noble beasts but animals do not interest me) but the one writer who writes well of this world is Arthur Morrison, in his detective stories about Martin Hewitt. Just as Trollope and Balzac are the only fiction writers who can make business interesting, Arthur Morrison is the only one who makes the turf come alive. I have not yet read his famous book A Child of the Jago. I shall. It is about a boy growing up in Hoxton, the infamous slum in the East End where my grandfather grew up. He danced as a boy in music halls at the intervals for pennies, a contemporary of Charlie Chaplin, fought at the Somme and lived long enough for me to remember him.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Girl, 6, was abandoned at side of A-road by school bus

A story in the Daily Mail about a 6 year-old schoolchild dropped by a school bus 50 yards from the school gates 15 minutes earlier than usual. Her parents are 

This makes me very ashamed of my country. And incredulous. What is to blame? Is it mothers no longer stay at home and care for children and compensate by over-solicitousness? Is it decline of religious belief and the end of stoicism, which are replaced by hypochondria and a curious and unhealthy obsession about children? Is it all down to Diana, Princess of Wales  and touchy-feeliness and the Daily Mail? Or do the English just have too few things to worry about? 

The last explanation sounds plausible even though in fact England has a lot to worry about. As the Anglo-Saxons fail to reproduce themselves and lose belief in life after death, individual children become more important.  But a nation which fails to reproduce and loses belief in God is in a very bad way. That includes the children as much as the adults.

Good morning

'There's nothing quite so lonely as an early morning street sweeper' said Cyril. No, early morning is never lonely, evenings are. Mornings are beautiful and full of hope. Mornings are the daughters of God.

When I was a boy I wrote sonnets to morning even though I hated early rising and I still know that morning is a mystical experience shared by us all.

Vice and virtue

Patience is the most important virtue at work and pride is as always the greatest vice.

A hanging matter

I am and always have been opposed to capital punishment.  Yet I always think less of people when I learn they oppose capital punishment and always think being in favour of hanging is proof of a good heart.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The evil eye

The evil eye is supposed to inflict bad luck and be motivated by envy. At first sight this seems distinct from evil in the usual sense but it is interesting that evil people, or at any rate psychopaths, do stare in a remarkably strange way and evil people are actuated primarily by envy. They envy everything for evil is a vacuum, a negation, not a real thing in itself. Especially they are drawn to good people, whom they wish to harm. 'His life had a daily beauty in it which made mine ugly' was the only explanation Iago gave for his crimes.

Ira Einhorn

I remember a beautiful psychopathic lawyer who loved Bach and played me a concerto on a CD and then told me 'That was written from pure hatred.' Those words made me feel sorry for her. I also felt sorry for her when she told me once that she hoped there was some tiny shred of humanity in her.

The psychopathic stare is a well documented phenomenon. Dr. Robert Hare, the greatest contemporary authority on psychopaths, writes, in Without Conscience:

Many people find it difficult to deal with intense, emotionless, or "predatory" stare of the psychopath. Normal people maintain close eye contact with others for a variety of reasons, but the fixated stare of the psychopath is more prelude to self-gratification and the exercise of power than simple interest or empathic caring.


Some people respond to the emotionsless stare of the psychopath with considerable discomfort. Normal people maintain close eye contact with others for a variety of reasons, but the fixated stare of the psychopath is more a prelude to self-gratification and the exercise of power than simple interest or empathic caring. ... Some people respond to the emotionless stare of the psychopath, with considerable discomfort, almost as if they feel like potential prey in the presence of a predator.

I have been on the receiving end of many such stares from two psychopaths I knew well (both highly intelligent and beautiful female Romanian lawyers) but I out-stare them effortlessly. I am an habitual starer though not a psychopath.

Apparently there may be a genetic basis, at least some think, to psychopathy. Psychopaths' brains when scanned often differ slightly from those of normal people, but brains develop in childhood, just as personality traits do. One interesting fact is that psychopaths are said to be more likely to have blue or green eyes than the general population. If this is true then Romania has fewer psychopaths per capita for blue and green eyes are rare in this country of brunettes. But 
I wonder. Some psychopathic traits seem not unfamiliar in Romania: lying; mimicking; haughty body language; arrogance; promiscuity; lack of ethics; skill at betrayal; inability to work hard. Deep waters.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Lords

Of course I love the hereditary peerage (I love Iolanthe too) and my first job was in the House of Lords. I remember the Lords when the 4th Lord Russell with his beard half way down his torso would spend the nights asleep on the red leather benches behind the throne. I remember too the previous Lord Mowbray with his piratical eye-patch:

Lord (Noel) Annan once recalled an occasion when a fellow peer quoted the famous lament of Sir Ranulph Crewe over the medieval nobility: "Where is Bohun, where's Mowbray, where's Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality" — whereupon a voice piped up from the Conservative benches saying: "Mowbray is here!" "There, indeed," recalled Annan, "was the premier baron of England, fighting fit and at his place in that hour."

But sometimes you really do have to move with the times (imagine an upper house in which sat as of right the great grandsons of John Prescott and Margaret Beckett). Even in 1910 the Tories wanted an elected second chamber - my solution is an Upper House elected for 15 year non renewable terms one tranche each year.

Or better by members of the public for 1 year terms, like jury service. But unlike jury service it would have to be voluntary. And only people over 30 with no criminal record, who could read and write English well.

The bishops? There is a conundrum to which I have no answer. The Catholic Church now believes in the separation of church and state which I have always thought utterly sad. I want the Anglican bishops to stay and do not want the Catholic bishops to become part of the (in the modern sense of the word) establishment by sitting there (they would not be allowed to by the Pope anyway). But Hindu and Sikh leaders in the Upper House?

This is the end of an old song.

Monday, 23 April 2012

St. George's Day and I shall buy a rose for my buttonhole

Cry Harry and St. George!

Though my patron saint St. Edmund was once patron saint of England until replaced by St. Edward the Confessor. 

People say

Do people in England still say 'It's a free country' in the way they used to? I imagine only ironically because it evidently no longer is.

I remember when you often heard people (women) say  'Aren't our police wonderful?'

Books read (and films seen) this year of grace 2012

The High Window*, Raymond Chandler
The Long Goodbye*, Raymond Chandler

Muhammad, Karen Armstrong
Stalingrad, Anthony Beevor 
Defying Hitler, Sebastian Hafner
Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-45, Roger Moorehouse
This Business of Living: Diaries 1925-50* Cesare Pavese
Relapse into Bondage Alexandru Cretianu
Friends and Heroes*, Olivia Manning
Waugh in Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh - I reviewed it here

History of the Roumanians* R.W.Seton-Watson 
A History of Romania Kurt Treptow
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi - Geoff Dyer
In Ethiopia with a Mule, Dervla Murphy - I reviewed it here
Tippoo Tib: The Story of His Career in Zanzibar & Central Africa, Heinrich Brode  

Bold means I loved it. An asterisk means I have read it before. 

What a masculine, middle-aged, philistine and shamefully short list. I am a cigarette paper's breadth away from reading military history, which is the last refuge of the middle-aged male. In fact I tried Beevor's Stalingrad on a recommendation from an aesthete friend but it bored and repelled me. 

I read Chandler for the prose style not for the plot, though he is  a good storyteller. I thought when 14 that The Long Goodbye was too long and too much trying to be a proper novel. Now I absolutely loved it except the ending with the silly twist which I merely skimmed without attempting to understand it.

Karen Armstrong is not worth reading as she does not mention that the evidence for her subject's life is extremely late indeed (two centuries after the event) but the new book by Tom Holland on the origins of the Koran sounds good. Holland apparently went to my college years after me and took a Double First in Classics and History and has many books to his credit. I try not to be jealous.

Hafner's book, to my great surprise, an account of his uneventful life in Berlin in 1933, found among his papers and published ten years ago, is absolutely wonderful. It is beautifully written and deeply horrifying because of the sheer normality of his life as he describes it in Berlin in 1933 and the ease and rapidity with which Germans accepted Nazism and Nazi indoctrination. I hope it becomes a classic and is read in a hundred years' time as it deserves to be. People follow like sheep. I saw a somewhat faint parallel with another totalitarian ideology with a whiff of sulphur, political correctness, which has made cowards of us all in recent years. 


The Moorehouse book is not particularly well written or strikingly insightful, but it efficiently covers the ground. The story of Stella Kübler, the beautiful blonde Jewess who was used by the Nazis as bait to uncover Jews hiding in Berlin, chilled my blood. One solitary Jew was permitted to survive in the Jewish cemetery burying Jews according to Jewish practice. He was still alive when the Russians came. This is what a friend of mine Madeleine Farrar-Hockley calls Hitler porn but my excuse is that I know very little about German domestic history during the Nazi period, the subject is important and I am interested in biographies of cities, writing as I am one a book on Bucharest. 

Olivia Manning's third volume in the Balkan trilogy, set in Greece, which I reread while spending the weekend in Athens and Hydra, inclines me to think that the reason I like the first two so much is because of my love of and interest in Romania not Manning's writing. She does not create characters. Her characters are clearly drawn from life in many cases and therefore do not come alive. It is the invented ones like Yaki who live. 

Films seen

The Blue Dahlia (1947)*
The Brasher Doubloon (1947)
Albert Nobbs (2011)
In a Better World (2011)

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Owl Critic

This doggerel has absolutely no literary merit but my father loved it and loved to read it aloud to me when I was a young boy and for this I greatly esteem it. It is a poem to be read aloud and is for those who enjoy heavy 19th century humour as I very much do. I have no idea who wrote it. Something brought it into my mind this evening for the first time in decades. It is a great joy to meet it again and I couldn't resist sharing it. 

The Owl Critic

"Who stuffed that white owl?" No one spoke in the shop;
The barber was busy and he couldn't stop;
The customers waiting their turns were all reading
The Daily, the Herald, the Post, little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

"Don't you see, Mister Brown,"
Cried the youth with a frown.
"How wrong the whole thing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is_
In short the whole owl, what and ignorant wreck is;
I make no apology;
I've passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskillful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from the beak to his tail,
Mister Brown ! Mister Brown !
Do take that bird down,
Or you'll soon be the laughing-stock all over town!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

"I've studied owls,
And other night fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true;
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his tail canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He can't do this, because
"Tis against all bird laws.
Anatomy teaches.
Ornithology preaches,
An owl has a toe
That can't turn out so !

I've made the white owl my study for years.
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears;
Mister Brown, I'm amazed
You should have gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd !
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him didn't know half his business
And the barber kept on shaving.

"Examine those eyes,
I'm filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They'd make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

"With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there's not one natural feather."

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch.
The owl very gravely got down from his perch,
Walked around, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he would say;
"Your learning's at fault this time, anyway;
Don't waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I'm an owl; your're another. Sir Critic, good day!"
And the barber kept on shaving

Reprinted in Ward's Natural Science Bulletin No. 3, Rochester, New York, April 1, 1882, page 15

Sunday blues

In England in my day, as Tony Hancock said, Sunday was so depressing that Saturday was ruined knowing the next day was going to be Sunday.

Saturdays in my childhood became depressing in the afternoon with wrestling on the television (which we never called the telly) and Mick McManus and then it was downhill. Sunday was Mass and shopping at the Jewish shop, which was allowed to open till 12.30 p.m., for things we had forgotten to buy on Saturday. Sunday lunch and Forces Favourites and The Clitheroe Kid  followed by an old film on TV were great. Except that Sunday's depressingness seeped in. And then school on Monday which was Belsen. And yet I remember my childhood as blissfully happy. Confusing.

Bucharest the capital village

The villages are the true Romania, not the towns. In fact the towns, when they are not German as all the good looking ones are, are villages which have expanded. 

Bucharest is a village too. Like all Wallachian villages it straggles a road, in this case the road from Vienna and Brasov to Giurgiu and Constantinople which became the famous  Mogoşoaia Bridge (so-called because it was made of planks sitting on mud) and was renamed the Avenue of Victory (Calea Victoriei) after Romania achieved independence from the Sublime Porte. But Bucharest is a village in many senses. Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips, everyone knows the inside track and is shocked at your naivety or ignorance if you don't know it. No village goes in for character assassination more than Bucharest. 

Bucharest has most of the defects that the word parochial summarises but I like parochiality and think it the only antidote to the globalised internationalist spirit of the age. On the other hand unlike real villages Bucharest has restaurants, opera and lots of highly intelligent people. The best of both worlds perhaps but sometimes an escape to the countryside is a  great delight.

An old-fashioned restaurant

In my 14 years here Romania has grown up and become less exciting and so have I. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than the Old Town in Bucharest where I have lived since 2000 which until around 2006 was edgy. Now it is a standard inauthentic piece of hospitality industry plant just like the centres of every other European capital. I except Minsk and Tirana but Minsk and Tirana are new cities with almost nothing old in them and no-one visits them except for reasons.

The Blanduziei  Restaurant a couple of hundred yards from the Old Town close to the porticoed front of the National Bank in Str. Academiei, and five minutes from my flat, is a refuge from the gallimaufry  of newly opened restaurants and bars, an oasis of civilisation in a sea of kitsch. Though unkind people might describe it is an oasis of kitsch which is also possibly true. It is a restaurant I walked past for eleven years before last summer I started going there and is just my kind of place. A pretty Romanian terrace with a good gypsy band and inside a brown and purple  chiaroscuro which looks nineteenth century. Although the waiter informs me that the Blanduziei under its present name dates back only to about 1970 he also says there was  a restaurant on this site from the 1870s and Mihai Eminescu the national poet ate there.  

The other night I ate a chicken breast and Bulgarian salad in the open air and chastely drank mineral water in the cool air, just warm enough to eat outside. Two other solitary men sit at tables in the terrace both wearing hats. The gypsies play Ionel Ionelule. I feel this could be the 20s or 30s, we could be characters in a story by Mircea Eliade.

Downstairs when I brought Ronnie and Rupert to talk about the books we are writing I felt like a Republican conspiring to overthrow the monarchy in the 1870s. Ronnie and Rupert though they are around fifty groaned at the  1930s musica populara – they were playing the wonderful Ioana Radu - and I remembered people  at school sneering at my pre-war taste in music. One of the many things I love about Romania is that people of all ages like the wonderful Romanian popular music of before the war. I hoped British people by the age of fifty would have learnt to like old music too but it seems my generation is blighted by bad taste as by original sin. I except myself from the first, the curse of 1970s ideas and tastes. 

Orthodox Easter in Bucharest, last weekend

The tiny Catholic Church in Greece celebrates Easter on the same day as the Orthodox, a timid step towards healing the Great Schism. I wish the Catholic Church in Romania did the same. Instead this year as most years Easter fell on a different date depending which side you take in the Great Schism. For Catholics Easter was a week earlier.

For the first time in a quite a few years I was in Romania for the Orthodox Easter and shall try to be so every year. Next year perhaps I'll go to the Bucovina and go to Mass in one of the painted monasteries as I did ten years ago or in the Maramures or in Milea 23 in the Delta. Easter I realise is best in the villages. 

As my friend Alison Mutler, said ‘Romania is a most magical country at Easter. Romanians really get Easter in a way they don't in other countries (myself included, I am always touched after all these years).’

Theologically Easter of course is much more important than Christmas but in Catholic and protestant countries Christmas is much more important in real life but in orthodox countries Easter is given its rightful pre-eminence.

Good Friday is not a public holiday but many take it off and in the countryside it is considered like the major saints’ days an unofficial holiday.

Catholic churches close on Maundy Thursday to reopen late on Easter Saturday but the Orthodox for their Easter behave otherwise.

On the evening of Good Friday I went to Mass in what is to my mind the most beautiful church in Romania, the Stavropoleos Church a three hundred yards  from where I live. Until a  few years ago I had the Old Town almost to myself at night but now the streets are full of light and noise and in the early morning  loud with the sons of Belial flown with wine. The Stavropoleos Church (actually a  monastery with enchanting cloisters) seven years ago used to share an empty pot-holed street with secondary buildings of the  National Bank and the empty behemoth of the state-owned Caru cu Bere, the late 19th century German beer hall which now privatised buzzes with life and laughter. The church is a hundred yards from a thriving Japanese restaurants something like many things that would have been unimaginable but now seems like it was always here. Yet in the church and crammed outside the faithful of all ages gather to hear Mass.

The friends I was supposed to be meeting has her telephone switched off and so eventually I have to walk away with reluctance before we get to the ceremony of the burial of Our Lord where a simulacrum the coffin containing of His body is taken to be buried. I saw this last year in Hydra, enchanting Greek island where cars are not allowed and the narrow streets of the little island were full of burial processions from the many churches. Romania is said to be the most religious country in Europe but as Eugene Ionesco said Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in catholic or Protestant countries. It is much more centred on God and about the other world and  the liturgy than about ethics or social responsibility. It is a very individualistic faith but one that is embraced by the community as a whole. It almost is true to say here what is no longer true of Italy os Spain that belief in God seems as natural as believing the sun will go down tonight and rise tomorrow.

The Romanians revere their priests and religious but many respect the Church as an institution rather less. The Church though it is always easily top of institutions Romanians respect (there really is not a lot of competition) it is damaged by the fact that it cohabited and collaborated with the Communist regime and by its wealth. Even here in the Balkans the idea that the church is the oracle of God has to fight hard against Enlightenment ideas and belief in a  personal relationship with God unmediated by priests.
For Midnight Mass my friends chose a very good location in the Izvorul Tamaduirii (healing spring) church in Strada Monateriei behind the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Under an archway  the church has a large courtyard. The priests at Midnight came out of the packed church and said Mass to the one waiting outside in the rain, something that at many churches does not happen. The words of the nativity story from the Gospel are sung beautifully in Romanian. A paschal candle is born aloft from the church and the candles of the faithful are lit one candle from another. The beauty of the words and music and ritual and the faith of the congregation formed a critical mass, something deeply moving and almost tangible. Within half an hour the streets of Bucharest are sprinkled with candles.

I love very much the Orthodox Mass and wonder how different the Catholic Mass was before the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation. The Orthodox Church does not let light in on mystery.

I saw at Mass that it is faith and the Church which is one of the main reasons why Romania is such a wonderful place to live. I wish I did not think all this will be swept away by money, foreign ideas, comparative theology and human rights taught in schools according to EU directives and  the idea that all this is terribly picturesque but parochial and out of date.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Smelling Thackeray

Thinking about the strange pungent small of the pages of Thackeray's Collected Works in the Smith, Elder edition, bound in the green buckram popular edition. I didn't like Thackeray but loved that smell. Aged 13, I tried to make my way through The Newcomes and quite a few other books of his, bought for pennies, because of that smell which only Smith, Elder editions of that era have, the heavy cream paper and the illustrations which tantalisingly promised much more than Thackeray ever delivered.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Shopping porn

Santayana  said:

 "Luxury requires an aristocratic setting to make it attractive". (He could have added to make it interesting too.) Still excess has its own zest which Coco Chanel said is the secret of beauty.

Interesting that, though materialism was despised by the 1960s generation, consumerism and celebrity worship are the most important and lasting legacies of the 1960s,  ahead even of racial equality and the discovery that women like sex too.  

There is a thriving genre of shopping porn of  which this about the ill-named Posh Spice is a good example, which excites a large audience, probably one imagines of women and possibly very epicene men. 

Another legacy I suppose is that Posh Spice's lack of class means so very much less than it would have fifty years ago when Christine Keeler made such an impact because she was a prostitute who looked like a lady.   

Epitaphs on politicians

I met a man who told me working in a children's bookshop was like living in heaven. Yes. 

The English give their most profound authors to children to read. Swift, Carroll, Belloc.

Here is Hilaire Belloc on politicians. The first epitaph seemed to me the only fitting comment on Ted Kennedy's ducal funeral Mass, given by a Cardinal and many priests in Boston Cathedral:

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

And these apply to very many Romanian politicians, in all parties: 

This, the last ornament among the peers,
Bribed, bullied, swindled and blackmailed for years:
But Death's what even Politicians fail
To bribe or swindle, bully or blackmail.


The Politician, dead and turned to clay,
Will make a clout to keep the wind away.
I am not fond of draughts, and yet I doubt
If I could get myself to touch that clout.

Causing pain

"I do find that the left have a tendency to suffer actual pain if exposed to non-left opinions." Ruth Dudley Edwards, who usually right about everything and very wise even when she is not right.True and beautifully put. 

I felt the same when I was anti-Mrs. Thatcher but I do not remember why. 


Some people sabotage or damage themselves to make others feel sorry for them. The sensible thing to do is to withhold pity in such cases except that what is more pitiful than desiring to be pitied? Perhaps the only thing more pitiful is to think that being pitiable is the equivalent of moral virtue. 

But pity and love are very close as Unamuno said. The desire for pity can be a desire to be loved and that is pitiable. Even more interesting is the person who does not want to be pitied but secretly congratulates himself for not wanting pity, which is a very clever hidden form of self-pity indeed.

Loving the past

I am in love with the past but not with the past as it was when it was the present, when it was materialistic and mundane as the present almost always is except in times of calamity, but the past as it is now, a memory. This means I am a romantic, half in love with easeful death I suppose, a morbid child of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution despite my best intentions.

Carlyle said 'the past is attractive because it is drained of fear' and this is very true indeed. But another reason it is attractive is that the past being unfamiliar lacks the boring quality which life has and which people who do not fully grow up do not bring themselves to accept. More simply the young boy seeks to learn to be a man by emulating his father and mine was dreaming of the vanished glories of life in the 1930s and 1940s when things had not been better for him in material terms but when he had been young.

Churchill is supposed to have tried to say in French that when he looked back over his past he saw that was divided into two equal parts but said mon derrière  instead of mon passé. 

It is priggish and a great mistake to reject ones own generation though a sign of sensitivity and wisdom to love the past. But the past does not exist, remember. The past is smoke.

St. Stalin

This is said to be on sale in the shop in the principal cathedral in Odessa. How very curious and how terribly sad.

I suppose if there were, unimaginably, a comparable picture of Hitler on sale in a shop in a church in Germany I would say 'incredible' not 'curious' and  'outrageous' or 'terrifying' not 'sad'.

Monday, 16 April 2012

"There is always a danger of confusing one's childhood with the universe."

"There is always a danger of confusing one's childhood with the universe." James Wood in the London Evening Standard began thus a hostile review of Roger Scruton's remoselessly backward-looking England: an Elegy in 2000. I found the book unsatisfactory even though I feel elegiac about England myself, but liked Mr. Wood's wonderful sentence.

Two absolutely fascinating articles from 2008 about the origins of the Koran

I rarely read any historical writing more interesting than these pieces. I was reminded of them by this review of a new book on the subject, by Tom Holland, which seems to render it pointless to read the biography of Mahomet that I bought recently by Karen Armstrong. Charles Moore who is always so good reviews the Tom Holland book interestingly here.

However, Carlyle in his Heroes and (surprisingly, because he was not a good historian) Belloc are both timeless on Mahomet and the origins of Islam. Carlyle greatly admired the Prophet. I heard Carlyle described by Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper) as a proto-fascist which is rather harsh.

The Lost Koran Archive
By Andrew Higgins

On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.
The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.
Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars -- and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave.
"He pretended it disappeared. He wanted to be rid of it," says Angelika Neuwirth, a former pupil and protégée of the late Mr. Spitaler. Academics who worked with Mr. Spitaler, a powerful figure in postwar German scholarship who died in 2003, have been left guessing why he squirreled away the unusual trove for so long.
Ms. Neuwirth, a professor of Arabic studies at Berlin's Free University, now is overseeing a revival of the research. The project renews a grand tradition of German Quranic scholarship that was interrupted by the Third Reich. The Nazis purged Jewish experts on ancient Arabic texts and compelled Aryan colleagues to serve the war effort. Middle East scholars worked as intelligence officers, interrogators and linguists. Mr. Spitaler himself served, apparently as a translator, in the German-Arab Infantry Battalion 845, a unit of Arab volunteers to the Nazi cause, according to wartime records.
During the 19th century, Germans pioneered modern scholarship of ancient texts. Their work revolutionized understanding of Christian and Jewish scripture. It also infuriated some of the devout, who resented secular scrutiny of texts believed to contain sacred truths.
The revived Quran venture plays into a very modern debate: how to reconcile Islam with the modern world? Academic quarrying of the Quran has produced bold theories, bitter feuds and even claims of an Islamic Reformation in the making. Applying Western critical methods to Islam's holiest text is a sensitive test of the Muslim community's readiness to both accommodate and absorb thinking outside its own traditions.
"It is very exciting," says Patricia Crone, a scholar at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study and a pioneer of unorthodox theories about Islam's early years. She says she first heard that the Munich archive had survived when attending a conference in Germany last fall. "Everyone thought it was destroyed."
The Quran is viewed by most Muslims as the unchanging word of God as transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. The text, they believe, didn't evolve or get edited. The Quran says it is "flawless" and fixed by an "imperishable tablet" in heaven. It starts with a warning: "This book is not to be doubted."
Quranic scholarship often focuses on arcane questions of philology and textual analysis. Experts nonetheless tend to tread warily, mindful of fury directed in recent years at people deemed to have blasphemed Islam's founding document and the Prophet Muhammad.
A scholar in northern Germany writes under the pseudonym of Christoph Luxenberg because, he says, his controversial views on the Quran risk provoking Muslims. He claims that chunks of it were written not in Arabic but in another ancient language, Syriac. The "virgins" promised by the Quran to Islamic martyrs, he asserts, are in fact only "grapes."
Ms. Neuwirth, the Berlin professor now in charge of the Munich archive, rejects the theories of her more radical colleagues, who ride roughshod, she says, over Islamic scholarship. Her aim, she says, isn't to challenge Islam but to "give the Quran the same attention as the Bible." All the same, she adds: "This is a taboo zone."
Ms. Neuwirth says it's too early to have any idea what her team's close study of the cache of early texts and other manuscripts will reveal. Their project, launched last year at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities, has state funding for 18 years but could take much longer. The earliest manuscripts of the Quran date from around 700 and use a skeletal version of the Arabic script that is difficult to decipher and can be open to divergent readings.
Mystery and misfortune bedeviled the Munich archive from the start. The scholar who launched it perished in an odd climbing accident in 1933. His successor died in a 1941 plane crash. Mr. Spitaler, who inherited the Quran collection and then hid it, fared better. He lived to age 93.
The rolls of film, kept in cigar boxes, plastic trays and an old cookie tin, are now in a safe in Berlin. The photos of the old manuscripts will form the foundation of a computer data base that Ms. Neuwirth's team believes will help tease out the history of Islam's founding text. The result, says Michael Marx, the project's research director, could be the first "critical edition" of the Quran -- an attempt to divine what the original text looked like and to explore overlaps with the Bible and other Christian and Jewish literature.
A group of Tunisians has embarked on a parallel mission, but they want to keep it quiet to avoid angering fellow Muslims, says Moncef Ben Abdeljelil, a scholar involved in the venture. "Silence is sometimes best," he says. Afghan authorities last year arrested an official involved in a vernacular translation of the Quran that was condemned as blasphemous. Its editor went into hiding.
Many Christians, too, dislike secular scholars boring into sacred texts, and dismiss challenges to certain Biblical passages. But most accept that the Bible was written by different people at different times, and that it took centuries of winnowing before the Christian canon was fixed in its current form.
Muslims, by contrast, view the Quran as the literal word of God. Questioning the Quran "is like telling a Christian that Jesus was gay," says Abdou Filali-Ansary, a Moroccan scholar.
Modern approaches to textual analysis developed in the West are viewed in much of the Muslim world as irrelevant, at best. "Only the writings of a practicing Muslim are worthy of our attention," a university professor in Saudi Arabia wrote in a 2003 book. "Muslim views on the Holy Book must remain firm: It is the Word of Allah, constant, immaculate, unalterable and inimitable."
Ms. Neuwirth, the Berlin Quran expert, and Mr. Marx, her research director, have tried to explain the project to the Muslim world in trips to Iran, Turkey, Syria and Morocco. When a German newspaper trumpeted their work last fall on its front page and predicted that it would "overthrow rulers and topple kingdoms," Mr. Marx called Arab television network al-Jazeera and other media to deny any assault on the tenets of Islam.
Europeans started to study the Quran in the Middle Ages, largely in an effort to debunk it. In the 19th century, faith-driven polemical research gave way to more serious scientific study of old texts. Germans led the way.
Their original focus was the Bible. Priests and rabbis pushed back, but scholars pressed on, challenging traditional views of the Old and New Testaments. Their work undermined faith in the literal truth of scripture and helped birth today's largely secular Europe. Over time, some turned their attention to the Quran, too.
In 1857, a Paris academy offered a prize for the best "critical history" of the Quran. A German, Theodor Nöldeke, won. His entry became the cornerstone of future Western research. Mr. Nöldeke, says Ms. Neuwirth, is "the rock of our church."
The Munich archive began with one of Mr. Nöldeke's protégés, Gotthelf Bergsträsser. As Germany slid towards fascism early last century, he hunted down old copies of the Quran in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. He took photographs of them with a Leica camera.
In 1933, a few months after Hitler became chancellor, Mr. Bergsträsser, an experienced climber, died in the Bavarian Alps. His body was never given an autopsy; rumors spread of suicide or foul play.
His work was taken up by Otto Pretzl, another German Arabist. He too set off with a Leica. In a 1934 journey to Morocco, he wangled his way into a royal library containing an old copy of the Quran and won over initially suspicious clerics, he said in a handwritten report about his trip.
The Nazis began to use Arabists early in the war when German forces began pushing into regions with large Muslim populations, first North Africa and then the Soviet Union. Scholars were used to broadcast propaganda and to help set up mullah schools for Muslims recruited into the German armed forces.
Mr. Pretzl, the manuscript collector, appears to have worked largely in military intelligence. He interrogated Arabic-speaking soldiers captured in the invasion of France, then, according to some accounts, set off on a mission to stir up an Arab uprising against British troops in Iraq. His plane crashed.
Responsibility for the Quran archive fell to Mr. Spitaler, who had helped collect some of the photos. During the war, Mr. Spitaler served in the command offices in Germany and later as an Arabic linguist in Austria, gaining only a modest military rank, records indicate.
After the war, he returned to academia. Instead of reviving the Quran project, he embarked on a laborious but less-sensitive endeavor, a dictionary of classical Arabic. After nearly half a century of work, definitions were published only for words beginning with two letters of the 28-letter Arabic alphabet.
Mr. Spitaler rarely published papers, but was widely admired for his mastery of Arabic texts. A few scholars, however, judged him overly cautious, unproductive and hostile to unconventional views.
"The whole period after 1945 was poisoned by the Nazis," says Günter Lüling, a scholar who was drummed out of his university in the 1970s after he put forward heterodox theories about the Quran's origins. His doctoral thesis argued that the Quran was lifted in part from Christian hymns. Blackballed by Mr. Spitaler, Mr. Lüling lost his teaching job and launched a fruitless six-year court battle to be reinstated. Feuding over the Quran, he says, "ruined my life."
He wrote books and articles at home, funded by his wife, who took a job in a pharmacy. Asked by a French journal to write a paper on German Arabists, Mr. Lüling went to Berlin to examine wartime records. Germany's prominent postwar Arabic scholars, he says, "were all connected to the Nazis."
Berthold Spuler, for example, translated Yiddish and Hebrew for the Gestapo, says Mr. Lüling. (Mr. Spuler's subsequent teaching career ran into trouble in the 1960s when, during a Hamburg student protest, he shouted that the demonstrators "belong in a concentration camp.") Rudi Paret, who in 1962 produced what became the standard German translation of the Quran, was listed as a member of "The Institute for Research on and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life." Despite their wartime activities, the subsequent work of such scholars is still highly regarded.
By the mid-1970s, Mr. Spitaler in Munich was nearing retirement at the university there. He began moving boxes into a room set aside for the dictionary project at Bavaria's Academy of Sciences. His last doctoral student in Munich, Kathrin Müller, who was working on the dictionary, says she looked inside one of the boxes and saw old film. She asked Mr. Spitaler what it was but didn't get an answer. The boxes, she now realizes, contained the old Quran archive. "He didn't want to explain anything," she says.
In the early 1980s, when the archive was still thought to be lost, two German scholars traveled to Yemen to examine and help restore a cache of ancient Quran manuscripts. They, too, took pictures. When they tried to get them out of Yemen, authorities seized them, says Gerd-Rüdiger Puin, one of the scholars. German diplomats finally persuaded Yemen to release most of the photos, he says.
Mr. Puin says the manuscripts suggested to him that the Quran "didn't just fall from heaven" but "has a history." When he said so publicly a decade ago, it stirred rage. "Please ensure that these scholars are not given further access to the documents," read one letter to the Yemen Times. "Allah, help us against our enemies."
Berlin Quran expert Ms. Neuwirth, though widely regarded as respectful of Islamic tradition, got sideswiped by Arab suspicion of Western scholars. She was fired from a teaching post in Jordan, she says, for mentioning a radical revisionist scholar during a lecture in Germany.
Around 1990, Ms. Neuwirth met Mr. Spitaler, her old professor, in Berlin. He was in his 80s and growing frail, but remained sharp mentally. He "got sentimental about the old times," recalls Ms. Neuwirth. As they talked, he casually mentioned that he still had the photo archive. He offered to give it to her. "I had heard it didn't exist," she says. She later sent two of her students to Munich to collect the photo cache and bring it to Berlin.
The news didn't spread beyond a small circle of scholars. When Mr. Spitaler died in 2003, Paul Kunitizsch, a fellow Munich Arabist, wrote an obituary recounting how the archive had been lost, torpedoing the Quran project. Such a venture, he wrote, "now appears totally out of the question" because of "the attitude of the Islamic world to such a project."
Information about the archive's survival has just begun trickling out to the wider scholarly community. Why Mr. Spitaler hid it remains a mystery. His only published mention of the archive's fate was a footnote to an article in a 1975 book on the Quran. Claiming the bulk of the cache had been lost during the war, he wrote cryptically that "drastically changed conditions after 1945" ruled out any rebuilding of the collection.
Ms. Neuwirth, the current guardian of the archive, believes that perhaps Mr. Spitaler was simply "sick of" the time-consuming project and wanted to move on to other work. Mr. Lüling has a less charitable theory: that Mr. Spitaler didn't have the talents needed to make use of the archive himself and wanted to make sure colleagues couldn't outshine him by working on the material.
Mr. Kunitzsch, the obituary author, says he's mystified by Mr. Spitaler's motives. He speculates that his former colleague decided that the Quran manuscript project was simply too ambitious. The task, says Mr. Kunitzsch, grew steadily more sensitive as Muslim hostility towards Western scholars escalated, particularly after the founding of Israel in 1948. "He knew that for Arabs, [the Quran] was a closed matter."
Ms. Müller, Mr. Spitaler's last doctoral student, says the war "was a deep cut for everything" and buried the prewar dreams of many Germans. Another possible factor, she adds, was Mr. Spitaler's own deep religious faith. She opens up a copy of a Quran used by the late professor, a practicing Catholic, until his death. Unlike his other Arabic texts, which are scrawled with notes and underlinings, it has no markings at all.
"Perhaps he had too much respect for holy books," says Ms. Müller.

Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci Code
By Spengler

Islam watchers blogged all weekend about news that a secret archive of ancient Islamic texts had surfaced after 60 years of suppression. Andrew Higgins' Wall Street Journal report that the photographic record of Koranic manuscripts, supposedly destroyed during World War II but occulted by a scholar of alleged Nazi sympathies, reads like a conflation of the Da Vinci Code with Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail.

The Da Vinci Code offered a silly fantasy in which Opus Dei, homicidal monks and twisted billionaires chased after proof that Christianity is a hoax. But the story of the photographic archive of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, now ensconced in a Berlin vault, is a case of life imitating truly dreadful art. It even has Nazis. "I hate those guys!" as Indiana Jones said.

No one is going to produce proof that Jesus Christ did not rise from the grave three days after the Crucifixion, of course. Humankind will choose to believe or not that God revealed Himself in this fashion. But Islam stands at risk of a Da Vinci Code effect, for in Islam, God's self-revelation took the form not of the Exodus, nor the revelation at Mount Sinai, nor the Resurrection, but rather a book, namely the Koran. The Encyclopaedia of Islam (1982) observes, "The closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Koran in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ." The Koran alone is the revelatory event in Islam.

What if scholars can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Koran was not dictated by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammad during the 7th century, but rather was redacted by later writers drawing on a variety of extant Christian and Jewish sources? That would be the precise equivalent of proving that the Jesus Christ of the Gospels really was a composite of several individuals, some of whom lived a century or two apart.

It has long been known that variant copies of the Koran exist, including some found in 1972 in a paper grave at Sa'na in Yemen, the subject of a cover story in the January 1999 Atlantic Monthly. Before the Yemeni authorities shut the door to Western scholars, two German academics, Gerhard R Puin and H C Graf von Bothmer, made 35,000 microfilm copies, which remain at the University of the Saarland. Many scholars believe that the German archive, which includes photocopies of manuscripts as old as 700 AD, will provide more evidence of variation in the Koran.

The history of the archive reads like an Islamic version of the Da Vinci Code. It is not clear why its existence was occulted for sixty years, or why it has come to light now, or when scholars will have free access to it. Higgins' account begins,
On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Koran.

The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Koran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible", Mr Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

Mr Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars - and a Koran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave. Why Spitaler concealed the archive is unknown, but Koranic critics who challenge the received Muslim account suspect his motives. Higgins reports,
"The whole period after 1945 was poisoned by the Nazis," says Gunter Luling, a scholar who was drummed out of his university in the 1970s after he put forward heterodox theories about the Koran's origins. His doctoral thesis argued that the Koran was lifted in part from Christian hymns. Blackballed by Spitaler, Luling lost his teaching job and launched a fruitless six-year court battle to be reinstated. Feuding over the Koran, he says, "ruined my life".

He wrote books and articles at home, funded by his wife, who took a job in a pharmacy. Asked by a French journal to write a paper on German Arabists, Luling went to Berlin to examine wartime records. Germany's prominent postwar Arabic scholars, he says, "were all connected to the Nazis".

Why were the Nazis so eager to suppress Koranic criticism? Most likely, the answer lies in their alliance with Islamist leaders, who shared their hatred of the Jews and also sought leverage against the British in the Middle East. The most recent of many books on this subject, Matthias Kuntzel's Jihad and Jew-Hatred, was reviewed January 13 in the New York Times by Jeffrey Goldberg, who reports
Kuntzel makes a bold and consequential argument: the dissemination of European models of anti-Semitism among Muslims was not haphazard, but an actual project of the Nazi Party, meant to turn Muslims against Jews and Zionism. He says that in the years before World War II, two Muslim leaders in particular willingly and knowingly carried Nazi ideology directly to the Muslim masses. They were Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, and the Egyptian proto-Islamist Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It may be a very long time before the contents of the Bavarian archive are known. Some Koranic critics, notably the pseudonymous scholar "Ibn Warraq", claim that Professor Angelika Neuwirth, the archive's custodian, has denied access to scholars who stray from the traditional interpretation. Neuwirth admits that she has had the archive since 1990. She has 18 years of funding to study the Bavarian archive, and it is not clear who will have access to it.

When the Atlantic Monthly story on Koranic criticism appeared nine years ago, author Toby Lester expected early results from the Yemeni finds.
Von Bothmer, Puin, and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinize the texts and to publish their findings freely - a prospect that thrills Puin. "So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God's unaltered word," he says. "They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana'a fragments will help us to do this.
In 2005, Puin published a collection of articles under the title, Die dunklen Anfange. Neue Forschungen zur Entstehung und fruhen Geschichte des Islam ("The dark beginnings: new research on the origin and early history of Islam," Hans Schiller Verlag, 2005). This drew on the work of the pseudonymous German philologist "Christoph Luxenburg", who sought to prove that incomprehensible passages in the Koran were written in Syriac-Aramaic rather than Arabic. Luxenburg's thesis became notorious for explaining that the "virgins" provided to Islamic jihadis in paradise were only raisins. The Koran, according to the research of Puin and his associates, copied a great deal of extant Christian material.

Apart from the little group at the University of the Saarland and a handful of others, though, the Western Academy is loathe to go near the issue. In the United States, where Arab and Islamic Studies rely on funding from the Gulf States, an interest in Koranic criticism is a failsafe way to commit career suicide.

Neuwirth has led the attack on "Christoph Luxenburg" and other Koranic critics who dispute the traditional Muslim account. According to Higgins, "Ms Neuwirth, the Berlin Koran expert, and Mr Marx, her research director, have tried to explain the project to the Muslim world in trips to Iran, Turkey, Syria and Morocco. When a German newspaper trumpeted their work last fall on its front page and predicted that it would 'overthrow rulers and topple kingdoms', Mr Marx called Arab television network al-Jazeera and other media to deny any assault on the tenets of Islam."

Despite her best efforts to reassure Islamic opinion, Higgins reports, she has stepped on landmines herself. "Ms Neuwirth, though widely regarded as respectful of Islamic tradition, got sideswiped by Arab suspicion of Western scholars. She was fired from a teaching post in Jordan, she says, for mentioning a radical revisionist scholar during a lecture in Germany."

The story thus far recalls the ending of another Indiana Jones film (Raiders of the Lost Ark), in which the Ark of the Covenant is filed away in an enormous warehouse, presumably never to be touched again. The Muslim world will continue to treat Koranic criticism as an existential risk, and apply whatever pressure is required to discourage it - albino monks presumably included.

But that is not the end of the matter. The Islamic world is forced to adopt an openly irrational stance, employing its power to intimidate scholars and frustrate the search for truth. It is impossible for Muslims to propose a dialogue with Western religions, as 38 Islamic scholars did in an October 13 letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders, and rule the subject of text criticism out of the discussion.

Precisely for this reason, Church leaders see little basis for a dialogue with Islam. Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, who directs the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told the French daily La Croix, "Muslims do not accept discussion about the Koran, because they say it was written under the dictates of God. With such an absolutist interpretation, it's difficult to discuss the contents of the faith."

Throughout the Internet, Islamist sites denounce the work of a handful of marginalized scholars as evidence of a plot by Christian missionaries to sabotage Islam. What the Muslim world cannot conceal is its vulnerability and fear in the face of Koranic criticism. In the great battle for converts through the Global South, this may turn out to be a paralyzing disadvantage.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd.)