This evening, on my way to my writers’ circle meeting, I saw something most extraordinary and also extremely frightening. It was in a narrow street with tall town houses behind the Place Fernand Coq in Ixelles. A first floor window was wide open and in it was a girl – about ten years old, I’d say – on a swing. As she swung back, into the room behind her, she was safe. But as she swung forward, out of the window, she was about ten metres above the street below. I did not imagine this. I was with a reliable witness, a colleague. We didn’t know what to do. If we had cried out she might have been startled or looked down and lost her balance. But who in their right minds could have set up such a swing in such a dangerous way, for it cannot have been the girl herself?
Although largely overlooked by the continental media, another set of elections were going on in the United Kingdom on Thursday. These were the local elections for some 164 local councils. At the moment, with 158 of the results in, Labour has gained 420 councillors and 15 councils, the Conservatives have lost 123 councillors and 8 councils, and the Liberal Democrats have lost 144 councillors and 4 councils. Confused? The explanation, at least in part, is that Labour was starting from such a poor result at the previous local elections and so a swing back up was only to be expected. But this set of results surely further blurs the message that the British electorate may, or may not, have wished to give to its political parties.
We watched A Streetcar Named Desire this evening. It is extraordinary to think that the film is almost sixty years old, but the stellar performances of a then relatively unknown Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh (fresh from Gone with the Wind) have lost none of their power. The producers had to struggle with some of the awkward themes from Tennessee Williams’s play – homosexuality and rape in particular – but the resulting subtleties contrast even more effectively with the brutal animality of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. The real star of the show was the playwright himself, entering a prolific period that would produce such masterpieces as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his poor sister, Rose (a beautiful schizophrenic who was institutionalised for much of her adult life), we were seeing in the character of Blanche Du Bois…
My 20 k coach
Theoretically, I am in training for the 20 k, so this morning the dog took me for a +/- 10 k run in the Forêt de Soignes. It’s a circuit around the lakes at Tervuren that all joggers will know well. The dog runs (just slightly) faster than me. He also has a habit of stopping to sniff interesting things. So I let him off the lead. I can do this with confidence because when he was young we spent about twenty-four consecutive Saturday mornings training him at a special school. In other words, although he is not attached, he is under control. Towards the end of the run, just near the summer palace and the boat house, I was stopped by a man on a bike. ‘Flemish, French, German, English?’ he asked, most politely. Then he explained that under the law he should give me a massive fine because my dog was off the lead in the forest. ‘I know,’ he continued, seeing my miffed expression, ‘I can see that your dog is well trained and it’s true that there are no young animals around here but, nevertheless, the law is the law and I have to apply it across the board.’ I tried to make a defence for myself. ‘I thought I’d be all right if I stuck to the roads.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘There are signs,’ he said. ‘Well, I didn’t see any,’ I replied. He shook his head even more sadly. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘The signs are in the wrong places or non-existent. But rule number one of the law is that if you enter the forest you should be aware of the law and the law says dogs should be on their leads at all times.’ He gave me a solemn warning and let me go. Now, I cannot complain about this chap. He wasn’t bumptious or officious. He was fluently polite in four languages. He wasn’t in the slightest bit aggressive, and he was understanding. Moreover, the Forêt de Soignes has in the past been plagued by packs of stray dogs and there have been horror stories about baby deer dying. But that sort of thing happens deep in the forest and not on the paths where I run. The only animals you see where I run are … Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs! (See 17 April post)
The volunteers just before the doors opened...
Today, Saturday, 8th May, was Open Doors Day in the EU institutions and the European Economic and Social Committee took its proud place alongside the other institutions in the European quarter in throwing open its doors and warmly welcoming in European citizens. We started at nine with a coordination meeting. The doors opened at 10.00 and the traffic of curious visitors steadily grew throughout the day. As ‘Captain of the Ship’ (well, first mate) I was there from beginning to end and I am immensely proud and happy about the way the event went. No less than twenty-one of our members participated, some coming from far away (Greece, Malta…). Sixty-one officials, all volunteers, worked throughout the day, manning stalls, showing visitors around, answering questions, supervising and, more generally, welcoming our visitors – and by close of play at 18.00 there had been around 4,500 of them. A fun day – and a tiring one.
This evening we watched the film, The Road, with some trepidation. Cormac McCarthy’s novel, on which the film is based, is quite simply a literary masterpiece. Could a film live up to it? Clearly not, from a purely literary point of view. But could it deal effectively with the same themes that McCarthy confronts? The answer is just as clearly ‘yes’. This is not a film to watch if you are feeling down or depressed but despite all the ghastliness and horror it nevertheless ends on the same ambiguous upbeat note as the novel: even in a Hobbesian post-apocalyptic world of cannabalism and worse, idealism and fellow-feeling will survive in humanity and may just ultimately be able to re-colonise the world. Neither the novel nor the film guarantee this, but they give us hope that there will always be a few ‘good guys’ carrying ‘the fire’.
I am sitting at my desk a little bleary-eyed at the moment. I have the BBC website on automatic refresh and, as I write, 649 out of 650 seats have been declared. The polls only closed last night at ten in the evening (eleven Continental time), so the first results only started to trickle through at around one in the morning our time. I confess I sloped off to bed around two. Nothing much seemed to be happening. Labour had held three seats and that was about it. I crawled out of bed again around five-thirty and what a different situation now existed! I have been glued to screens of one sort or another and to the radio and the television and earphones and my telephone ever since then. What an extraordinary race! At one stage it looked as though the Tories were going to gallop away with it, but they didn’t. Labour held up well in Scotland and less well in Wales. The Lib Dem surge simply didn’t materialise. There was no ‘Ed Balls moment’. Labour was not beaten into third place. The Conservatives have the largest number of seats (306) but do not have the 326 they would need for majority government alone. Labour (258 seats) and the Lib Dems (57) together have more seats. And now the offers and counter-offers and wooing have begun in earnest. In 1979 Jim Callaghan famously said ‘You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.’ This was not one of those moments or, at least, if it was, it was a much more nuanced message. But it seems in any case that the leaders of both the major parties are interpreting this result as a message that the UK’s electoral system needs to be reviewed, if not changed. So, whatever happens, this will almost certainly have been a historical election. Despite a dull start, it turned into a fascinating contest.
Eyes intermittently glued to the ‘breaking news’ on my mobile ‘phone, this morning I attended the opening ceremony of ‘Springfest’ at my children’s school. If ever your confidence about Europe’s potential weakens, then you should attend one of these ceremonies. The whole thing is organised by the kids, who always put on a rich display of gifted talent (music, dance, gymnastics…). And at the end of it all comes the ritual bit that always leaves me with a lump in my throat. The flags of each of the twenty-seven Member States is carried out by a flag party of children of differing nationalities. Each flag gets a loud cheer. And then out comes the EU flag, and it gets a very loud cheer. And then out comes the school’s Springfest flag, and that gets the loudest cheer of all, and then the party begins. It’s when you go to such events that the true meaning of such otherwise anodyne phrases as ‘unity in diversity’ becomes richly apparent. The EU and the eurozone may face big problems at the moment, but when I see the idealism and ‘can do’ attitude of our youngsters, I just know Europe is going to flourish.
Look for the holes in the statues
Sad news from Italy. When I was a doctoral student at the European University Institute in San Domenico di Fiesole (above Florence) I stayed in a small flat in a villa (Villa Mazzi) just off the main square, Piazza Mino, in Fiesole. The man who collected my rent and lived with his family in a larger flat in the same villa, Lino Bertaccini, was the barber of Fiesole. He had inherited the trade from his father, Egisto. Together, for 91 years altogether, Egisto and Lino shaved the chins and cut the hair of the men of Fiesole. Lino and his wife, Olga, and their son, Saverio, and daughter, Monica, became a second family to me. Once, just once, Lino rolled down the shutters of his barber shop and solemnly pulled down his trousers and pants to show me the grapefruit-sized hole in his backside where a shell had almost killed him during the war. You can see similar-sized holes in the statue of The Meeting of Garibaldi and Vittorio Emanuele II at Teano in the middle of Piazza Mino. The story is as follows. It was 1944. The Nazi occupiers had taken a group of village elders as hostages and had locked them up in what is now the Albergo Aurora just off the main square. Lino, then a young boy, was sent by his father with a bowl of hot water and a shaving brush to lather up the hostages in preparation for a visit from Egisto, who was allowed to shave them every day. Lino was halfway across the piazza when a stray British shell fell between him and the statue, punching large holes in both. He could have died. He could certainly have lived off an invalidity pension if he had so wished, but Lino returned in time to the barber’s shop and kept up the family tradition. Now, sadly, Lino has passed away. His funeral was held in the cathedral of Fiesole, San Romolo’s, and the congregation of mourners was so large that it spilled out onto the piazza. If you read Italian, you can read about Lino in this article in Il Reporter di Fiesole, penned on the occasion of Lino’s retirement last year. As to the hostages, three carabinieri, who had deserted to become partisans, gave themselves up in return for their release. The selflessness and sacrifice of the young carabinieri (they were shot) is one of surely many largely forgotten stories of Italian heroism and altruism in that horribly confused period towards the end of the war. With the passing away of Lino Bertaccini, Fiesole has lost one of its most familiar and endearing personalities.
Today is the last day of campaigning before the British electorate votes in what the media are describing as the most open election in decades. For what it’s worth, today’s Financial Times gives the following odds: Conservatives govern with other parties, 8/10; Conservatives win an outright majority, 7/10; Conservative minority government, 6/10; Labour and Lib Dem coalition (presumably, minus Brown), 4/10. There has been some fevered speculation about constitutional mechanics. What happens, for example, if Labour comes third in terms of the popular vote but, through the vagaries of the first-past-the-post constituency-based system, wins many more seats than the Lib Dems? Surely, argue the pundits, the pressure for constitutional change to the electoral system will become irresistable. More pragmatically and prosaically, the leaders of both major parties have been careful to leave the door to coalition government ajar. But a little voice inside my head keeps telling me we’ve been here before. After all, back in 1997 Tony Blair fully expected to have to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems…