Friday, 26 June 2015

Gaston Zananiri and Nomadic Theory

Michael Haag talking with Gaston Zananiri in Paris in 1996.
After I wrote Alexandria: City of Memory I was asked by an academic, one who had not yet read my book, what ‘theory’ I had used.  ‘Nomadic theory’ was suggested.  I had to look that up. 

Nomadic theory outlines a sustainable modern subjectivity as one in flux, never opposed to a dominant hierarchy yet intrinsically other, always in the process of becoming, and perpetually engaged in dynamic power relations both creative and restrictive. Nomadic theory offers an original and powerful alternative for scholars working in cultural and social criticism and has, over the past decade, crept into continental philosophy, queer theory, and feminist, postcolonial, techno-science, media, and race studies, as well as into architecture, history, and anthropology.

I explained to my enquirer that I used no theory.  I read letters and diaries, studied photographs, went to places and learned about them, and interviewed people who were there, and then I wrote my book.  

For example, there you see me talking with Gaston Zananiri in Paris in 1996.  We are not talking about nomadic theory.  We are talking about Alexandria, the city where he was born, knew intimately and was a recognised man of letters.  Zananiri was a friend of Constantine Cavafy in the 1920s and delivered the eulogy at his graveside in 1933.  Later Zananiri became a friend of Lawrence Durrell during the war years in Alexandria.  Durrell partly based the character of Balthazar in his Alexandria Quartet on Gaston Zananiri.  

In the 1920s and early 'thirties, as Zananiri recalled for me, 'towards twilight, towards evening', he would join Cavafy on his balcony and their view would be over the gardens of the Greek Hospital, today filled with mechanics' workshops and garages, and to the Patriarchal Church of St Saba beyond. With glasses of zabib in hand, they would sometimes talk about Byzantine civilisation, 'this model', in Zananiri's words, 'of poetry, sentiment and sex'. 'Where could I live better?' Cavafy said to him. 'Below, the brothel caters for the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die.'  

That is the way you learn about people and learn about a city.  That is the way you learn about history.  But it seems that for some that is not the way.  

I was reminded of this by a new book, published last month by Brill, called The Crisis from Within: Historians, Theory and the Humanities, by Nigel Raab, a professor of history. His thesis, I gather, is that the application of theory by academics to the writing of history leads to distortions and produces unintended meanings.  He suggests they do less of it.

As an example of writing history 'without a modicum of theoretical intent' he cites my book, Alexandria: City of Memory.

The prologue to a history of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria is titled 'The Capital of Memory'.  This heading is incredibly enticing because of its theoretical potential.  Does capital refer to the economic version preferred by Marxists or the social version preferred by followers of Pierre Bourdieu?  Is memory intended to reflect the collective memory of Halbwachs or the sites of memory of Pierre Nora?  The enthused theorist will be disappointed because the meaning of the title does not extend beyond what is to be found in the Oxford dictionary - capital is a state's political center and memory is a reflection upon the past.  Michael Haag has simply explored the history of Alexandria and covered the biographies of people whose lives the city touched.  Is the work any less important for its unwillingness to engage in theory?  How would the analysis change if the work had a theoretical structure superimposed upon it?

My view is that a historian is like an anthropologist. Anthropologists love theories, but first they need to eat a pangolin, and while they are chewing they should keep their mouths shut.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Postcard from the South of France 1939

Saint-Raphael in the South of France 1939.
I was about to use this old postcard to write a note to a friend when I took a closer look and got drawn into the hidden story it has to tell.

I communicate with friends by sending them letters and postcards. Any old postcards, new or old. 

Sometimes I pick up an old postcard that has never been written on and am the first to give it a message to carry, but sometimes someone has already done that long ago and so I add my own between the lines, maybe in a different coloured ink, my message running between the original one written perhaps seventy or eighty or a hundred years ago. 

This palimpsest quality of postcards fascinates me, not just the written messages but the many other messages carried by a postcard, the stamp for example, and the postmark, and the picture overleaf.

And so the story of this postcard from Saint-Raphael in the South of France, written and postmarked on the same day, Tuesday 4 July 1939. 

First there is the picture, the two girls strolling along looking casual and quite modern except that today their waistlines would be low, not high. 

'Weather lovely.'
The message on the back reads, ‘On the whole, a bas la WTA and vive la Prospect so far as I can say at present. Am in a lovely pension annexe run by 2 English ladies 15 mins from the main centre (Hotel Diana) where they are very dissatisfied and are longing to get a change. Pasty rather starchy, don’t drink, smoke, etc. Vive la France. GRW (Weather lovely)’. 

WTA probably means the Workers’ Travel Association which was founded in 1921 by British trade unions and the Cooperative Movement to offer organised and affordable overseas holidays to working class people. A chief mover behind the WTA was Arthur Creech Jones, trade unionist, socialist and pacifist, who organised protest meetings when conscription was introduced in 1916 and spent the rest of the war in jail as a conscientious objector.
Workers' Travel Association
brochure for 1939.

Creech Jones travelled a great deal in the 1930s, writing up his trips in his Travel Log column of the WTA journal.  His trips took him to Germany which acquainted him first hand with the Nazis and their persecution of the Jews; after the Munich Agreement in 1938 Creech Jones directed the rescue of hundreds of Jews from Czechoslovakia.

Meanwhile in 1935 Creech Jones was elected to Parliament; in 1940 when Ernest Bevin became minister of labour in Churchill’s wartime government he appointed Arthur Creech Jones his parliamentary private secretary.  In Clement Atlee’s postwar Labour government Creech Jones became secretary of state for the colonies and helped begin the process of decolonisation in Africa, Asia and the West Indies.  But that is taking us well beyond 1939 and this postcard from the South of France.

So what about ‘a bas la WTA and vive la Prospect’?  The author of the postcard has taken to the delights of Mediterranean France and he disapproves of the WTA’s choice of pension; I assume it is the pension run by the two English ladies that he finds rather starchy and he much prefers the Prospect which I suppose to be a cafĂ© where he can smoke and drink and watch the pretty girls walk by.  

'!!! H- H- !'
He dates his postcard only ‘Mardi’. But the postmark says more, 4 July 1939, which was a Tuesday. Less than two months later, on 1 September, Germany invaded Poland; on 3 September France and Britain declared war on Germany. This is the last summer, the last summer for many people and many ways and many things.

Then turning the postcard sideways I noticed those strange strokes, three exclamation marks and two dashes. Printed on the postcard are the words ‘ImprimĂ© en Allemagne’, Made in Germany. And GRW, who has sent the postcard, has added his own coded remark ‘!!! H – H—!’ – which after a moment I realised was an ironic Heil Hitler.

So GRW knows.  He knows this is the last summer.  In fact GRW knows more than most as the address on the postcard reveals. ‘A C Cossor Ltd, Highbury Grove, London N5’ – I know Highbury Grove with its launderettes and betting shops, its newsagents, off licences, Indian restaurants, Italian delicatessen and nail care centre.  A C Cossor would be something like that, I thought. 

Cossor's 1939 catalogue.

But A C Cossor turns out to be something different.  Founded in Clerkenwell in 1859 to manufacture scientific glassware, by 1902 it was making cathode ray tubes and during the First World War was a major supplier of valves to the British military.  In 1936 it was selling television sets. 

When the Battle of Britain began less than a year after GRW sent his postcard from Saint-Raphael to his friend in the publicity section of A C Cossor, when German bombers and fighter planes were attempting to knock Britain out of the war, Britain’s defence was in the hands of those men in their Spitfires whom Churchill called the Few, and also it was in the hands of A C Cossor’s radar system.
Radar transmitting towers in the background and receiving towers in the foreground.
On 20 June 1939, two weeks before that postcard was sent from the South of France to Cossor’s in Highbury Grove, Churchill was given a demonstration of their radar system.

In the face of the mounting German threat Cossor had begun developing the world's first radar air defence system, known as the Chain Home network, for which it would produce hundreds of ground-based receiving stations and eventually sea-based and airbourne radar systems too.   

Plotting enemy aircraft movements
on a cathode ray tube.

'Today has been one of the most exciting days of my life', Churchill said, 'for you have shown me the weapon with which we will defeat the Nazis'. 

I wish I knew something about GRW who sent the postcard and about E Blackburn who received it, about what happened to them in the immediate years to come.  And also what happened to those two girls walking so casually along the promenade.

The Few who won the Battle of Britain in the air.
But otherwise I have passed on to you what I have been told by the postcard sent from Saint-Raphael on Tuesday 4 July 1939.  I have not yet scribbled my own lines on it and sent it to a friend.

The Few who operated the radar defence system and won the Battle of Britain on the ground. 
For more on this see here.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Cavafy and English Decadence

Constantine Cavafy's cousin Maria Zambaco
by her lover Edward Burne-Jones.
Constantine Cavafy’s adolescence in England has long been buried in obscurity; and much of his creative life in Alexandria has been unexplained.  But now we have a work of literary criticism backed by genealogy and solid ethnography.  The revelations are startling yet suddenly everything falls into place. 

Maria Zambaco scandalised London society when she appeared nude in Burne-Jones' Phyllis and Demophoon.
In revealing Cavafy’s exposure to aestheticism in England and linking it to the decadence of his poetry, Peter Jeffreys in his forthcoming book Reframing Decadence has done more than follow a literary thread; he has shown how Cavafy was literally a child of these movements.
I have been reading Reframing Decadence in proof; when it is published in October by Cornell University Press it will enlarge and transform the way we see Cavafy.

Peter Jeffrey's
remarkable new book.
The Cavafys were tied by marriage, baptism and business through three generations to other leading Greek merchant families settled in England early in the nineteenth century.  In London Cavafy’s wealthy extended family were patrons of the arts.  Their women were friends, models and lovers of such avant garde figures as Edward Burne-Jones, James McNeil Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and some were also artists in their own right.

Venus modelled by Maria
Zambaco in Laus Veneris
by Burne-Jones.
The theme of depravity resulting from over-indulgence runs through Cavafy’s erotic poetry – a theme Cavafy would have encountered with some immediacy, to give just one example, in Burne-Jones’ painting Laus Veneris based on Swinburne’s poem of the same name where the model for the thwarted goddess of myth was Cavafy’s own cousin, the magnificent Maria Zambaco, the notoriously spurned mistress of Burne-Jones – ‘With loves burnt out and unassuaged desires’.

As Jeffreys himself writes, the avant garde aesthetes ‘comprise a genealogy equally as important to our understanding of Cavafy as that of his own family, if not even more significant’.

By the time Burne-Jones had finished his painting the Cavafys had lost all their money and returned to Alexandria and a life of genteel indigence.  

Cavafy in Alexandria in 1901.
From E M Forster we have the image of Cavafy in a straw hat standing at an angle to the universe, a man alone in a city which would soon cease to be a universe at all.

But in recovering Cavafy’s English years Jeffreys has shown how they gave shape to the poet’s technique and sensibility and directed his art for the rest of his life.   

With this new advance, Jeffreys is well on his way towards a comprehensive literary biography of Constantine Cavafy. 

Maria Zambaco in Burne-Jones' Love Among the Ruins.