Climate change, mines and reindeer

A day of celebration for me – I have been to the cinema for the first time in over two years, to Zita in Stockholm, to see Thomas Jackson’s film  on the Same artist Britta Marakatt-Labba, “Historjá stygn för Sápmi” (Historical Stitches for Sapmi, the latter word referring to the Sami land and people). It’s a very long embroidery, like the Bayeux tapestry but on the history of the Sami people. The focus is on the artist but the film is not just about her but on the difficult conditions faced by reindeer herders because of climate change and the consequent warming and seasonal unpredictability, which is threatening the Sami’s traditional way of life and culture (and ultimately, language).

It´s an aesthetically pleasing and gripping film even for those like me, with an aversion to snow and not inclined to talking to watercourses.

The director has done a fine job of integrating the work of art with general reflections on the future of the Sami people. I thought it well worth seeing.

It’s very topical just now as it’s not just the climate which is threatening the Sami, The Social Democratic Government has just controversially granted Beowulf Mining plc an exploitation concession. It’s been a longstanding wish of the company to exploit the iron ore deposits at Kallak near Jokkmokk in Norrbotten Sweden’s most northerly county (which, by the way, is the size of Belgium, the Netherlands and half of Switzerland combined).

According to Beowulf, the iron ore is of high quality with a low rate of impurities, which in itself confers some environmental advantages,. There are friendly green words in the announcement, spirit of collaboration, maximising benefits, partnerships.

 The Sami parliament, the representative body for people of indigenous heritage in Sweden, has warned that the mine will destroy grazing areas, cut off the only viable migratory route for reindeer followed by the Jåhkågasska Sami community who move westerly with their animals to the higher land on the Norwegian border for animals to calve during the spring.

Other Sami communities will also be affected by a reduction in their grazing area.

The departure of the Green Party from the Government made it easier for the Social Democrats to grant the Exploitation Concession (which was opposed by the Left Party as well as the Green Party).

The local community is split between those who see an opportunity to reverse falling population numbers and tax take up and increase employment, hoping that new money will stimulate the local economy despite Beowulf being a foreign company.

And, on the other side, those who believe that the rights and wishes of the Sami community on the use of  their historic land must be respected.

The last word has not yet been said as there has to be an environmental assessment and a balance struck between what the government refers to as conflicting national interests, minerals and reindeer husbandry.

The granting of the concession has attracted widespread opposition even outside Sweden (Unesco)

And inside Sweden, the archbishop of Uppsala has said that the proposed mine is not existentially and spiritually sustainable  (a new concept for me). So the last word has not yet been said but money does speak loudly.


English language sources;

Announcement, Beowulf Mining plc 29 March 2022

Article in the Guardian, 30 March 2022

Crony, chum and comrade and Turkic en passant

Using the word “crony” in a recent blog post made me wonder about its etymology According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it originates from the Greek khronios, meaning long-lasting and came into English in the seventeenth century as Cambridge University slang. It has acquired pejorative connotations since then.

A completely different origin from the rather disgusting word for old woman “crone”, which derives from old northern French caroigne meaning carrion, clearly a male chauvinist and chronochauvinist word that one should never use.

Thinking about “crony” led me to  “chum” and “comrade”, whose origins have similarities. According to COD, chum also originates from seventeenth century slang and probably is short for chamberfellow; I have seen elsewhere on the net that it was also university slang, but this time Oxford rather than Cambridge. There is also a spatial dimension to “comrade” which COD states as having originated from the French camarade and from Spanish camarada, room mate.

The Russian for comrade “tovarich” (not sure that my transliteration is up to speed here) apparently originates from a Turkic language but I don’t know what it means in Turkic, my library resources being deficient when it comes to the etymology of Turkic languages. The Turkic language family is a bad gap in my formation. I need to know more about them (and possibly have to buy a book or two, although there will have to be a slight purge soon as my project of squeezing the Library of Congress into 45 square metres is running into difficulties). I will anyway dedicate a few days to learning about the Turkic family of languages soon (and try to resist the temptation of buying a pretty file and making a nice label “Turkic” and then thinking that the problem is almost solved).

Postscript: I’ve used “chronochauvinism” incorrectly – it’s prejudice about one period of time being superior to another rather than personal age. I rather like it but as malapropism is a cardinal sin for a word tinker, I have to explain myself. I suppose “ageism” would fit although I hanker for something Greek but can’t bend “geras” to my will. I am in increasing need of an epithet; too many twinkly-eyed and avuncular situations when this silvertop (pink top?) gets asked “you don’t mind waiting while I serve this person, do you”. And I need to be able to say “Yes, I do Xchauvinist (mutatis mutandis). I’m in a hurry and have a world to win”.

Help those who come to Sweden and need help but don’t let the fog of war cloud our brains and “Promzona”

It’s such a pleasure to continue my exploration of Uppsala, my new home city, after the interruptions of intensive travelling and Covid. I visit Upplands Konstmuseum, the Uppland art gallery, for the first time, presently located at the castle. I’ve been to the castle before but ages ago and didn’t remember how fine the view over Uppsala is from there.

I wanted especially to look at an exhibition of the work of the Russian artist Pavel Otdelnov, Promzona, which I found out about by chance (for understandable reasons, the gallery is not vigorously marketing this exhibition just now. Otdelnov has, however, been critical of the invasion but I didn’t see much about his background or standpoints at the exhibition). Otdelnov grew up in Dzerzhinsk, an industrial city, 370 km east of Moscow in the Nizhny Novgorod oblast. The city was an important centre for the chemical industry (including during a period chemicals for chemical warfare, according to the exhibition). Otdelnov’s family lived there and some of its members worked in the industry. Otdelnov describes the dangerous work where the workers were exposed to toxic gases and where explosions with fatalities were hushed up.

He also describes with letters, documents and photos the solidarity of those working at the plants.

All this came to an end (or largely came to an end, I’m not sure whether any remnants of the once extensive industrial facilities remain) with the end of the planned economy. One after another, the enterprises closed down, leaving a spectacular landscape of industrial ruins, which Otdelnov has documented in photographs and by drone.

It’s fascinating to look at the artist’s photos and films but the exhibition has a frequent fault of artists dealing with social questions. There is an attraction to the visually spectacular, and  a tendency to make the worst case scenario the norm, which, in practice, leads to confirming fixed negative ideas, to prejudices rather than analysis. I suspect that a lot of the worst details about life in the plant were from the period of “High Stalinism” in the 30s and 40s. Were the workers at the plant in a better position before the Stalinist bureaucracy sat firm in the saddle? Did things improve after Stalin’s death? We are not told but the historical periods glide into one another in a confused way.

Chatting to the museum staff after viewing the exhibition (as one of the few, if not the sole viewer), I mention that it is strange that the city is still called Dzerzhinsk, presumably after Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the first Soviet secret police, the Cheka, given the extensive purge of city names associated with the Russian Revolution elsewhere. The attendant did not know who Dzerzhinsky was and I provided a short introduction (this was not on my plan for the day..).

Despite its analytical gaps, the exhibition is well worth seeing. I understand, of course, why one might feel distaste for things Russian at present. I don’t, however, share this reaction – for me the ordinary Russian people are not the perpetrators; they too are victims of the regime, not in such a dramatic and violent way as the Ukrainians but still victims. And I am not prepared to let the Putin regime dampen my interest in Russian culture and life any more that I would have made a bonfire of Goethe’s works had I been around in World War 2. We should be critical of the actions of the Putin regime but not allow ourselves to be swept away by Russophobia.

The tragedy of the current situation (as well as the destruction, killing and disruption of people’s lives in the Ukraine and the deaths of soldiers on both sides) is that this conflict has turned and will continue to turn ordinary people in the Ukraine and Russia against one another for a long time to come. Working people in Ukraine and Russia have much in common in their struggle for decent lives against the kleptocrats in Russia and crony capitalism in the Ukraine. The Putin regime bears a heavy responsibility for this but I would also argue that the US, Nato and the Ukrainian government have also contributed to the awful course of events.

The latter is probably not a popular position just now when there is an understandable surge of sympathy and solidarity with the fate of ordinary Ukrainians. But we shouldn’t let the fog of war becloud our brains. We should still think of the agenda of the various parties involved or associated with the conflict. What are the short- and long-term aims of the US government? What is in the interests of the German government and establishment? What do the Russians want? What type of regime is Russia – what conclusions can one draw if it’s not imperialist in the narrow sense? What do the leading economic forces in Ukraine want? What is in the interests of working people in the Ukraine and in Russia?

The annual report season, Starling and caoraich dubha

The annual report season is now upon us and I am now more or less fully booked for translation work between now and the end of April, So far it’s going well much thanks to having a competent project manager, who is taking care of the big picture so that I can concentrate on translating. I don’t often work at full speed these days but I still enjoy doing so occasionally, feeling very focused and buoyed up by the euphoria when the cloud on the horizon of all the work to do starts to disperse and I know that I am going to make my deadline.In my 70s, I aim at being a long-distance runner and not a sprinter but I have to break my own rules from time to time (there wouldn’t be much point in having rules otherwise…).But now a little pause while I wait for more text, all the tables and figures at the end of the report, which will hopefully melt away.I’ve started to prepare for a trip to the Outer Hebrides later this year. This time I’m not going to try to learn Scots Gaelic as I did last time, making sounds that no self-respecting native speaker of Scots Gaelic would allow to pass their lips. I won’t aim to be able to explain in Gaelic that my great grandfather on my mother’s side was William McKeown of Ballymena, County Antrim, uber protestant, and later a soldier and prison warder on Portland Dorset, where he presumably oversaw hard labouring convicts in the quarries. Had he been a dab hand at Irish Gaelic, I might have warmed to him but his heart was probably as orange as they come. And I regard him as a black sheep of the family or least a “caoraich dubha.” At some point, he met a Mary Starling and they produced my grandmother while he was working at the prison on Hardy’s Isle of Slingers. She was the second Starling in my life after my mother told her wondering seven year old son that Starling was dead in 1953.But I won’t be able to leave Gaelic alone altogether. I’m going to try to learn to pronounce the place names correctly, which will fit in well with my aim of learning the phonetic alphabet. The broad consonants look terrifying at first sight but once I get used to the idea that “mh” is pronounced as “v”, that “fh” is silent and that “sh” and “th” are pronounced as “h” (inter alia), things might get easier . I’d like to understand the problems that Gaelic speakers are trying to solve with these combinations. We have after all “gh” in English, which is pretty weird but gets easier to understand when you realise that French speakers were trying to get their heads around how to write down a Germanic sound that they didn’t have in French, But this can hardly be the explanation for these combinations in Gaelic (and come to think of it, bearing in mind the impact of the German-speaking Franks on Northern French, one wouldn’t have thought that the French would have had to cross the channel to get from nacht to night either- Life is full of mysteries).Uppsala, as Sweden’s centre of Celtic Studies, is a good place to be for this project as the answer to my questions can no doubt be found in some dark cavern at Carolina Rediviva (hopefully not minotaur-infested or the wrong side of the Styx).I can’t get too deeply involved with Scots Gaelic as I am already struggling with Bengali, And also reading “Manosque-des-Plateaux”, in French by the Provencal author Jean Giono in his pantheist period. It’s not an easy read with frequent new characters that pop up and disappear, tangled imagery and an approach to vocabulary not fettered by convention. Maybe I’ll try Finnegan’s Wake afterwards for some easy read relaxation.

Morning glory, Ike, Stalin’s henchman?, the Bavarian Illuminati and the Masque of Pandora

I usually wake up early, often before 6 but almost always before 7. But I often find that it’s much later before I’m completely in day mode. I have been, of course, my own employer and can engage in foibles like leisurely morning baths and reading the paper without having to rush away to catch a train to arrive bright-eyed and bushy tailed at some palace of Mammon.

But the delays seem to be getting more extreme as I get older and my foibles more assume the repetitive dignity of a David Kendall version of the Japanese tea ceremony (performed in slow motion). So I decided a while ago that I had to be up and running by 09.00, washed, fed, dressed, medicated with bedroom and dishwasher attended to.

So far so good. Fast forward to today where my breakfast attention was caught by a review in the Times Literary Supplement of a biography of Robert Welsh, founder of the John Birch Society, “A Conspiratorial Life” by Kyle Burke. According to Burke, Welsh was evidently a promising youth enrolled at the University of North Carolina at the age of 12 “where he impressed his peers and professors” (I must check this…). His politics became weirder as he grew older seeing “evidence of subversion in every nook and cranny of American life”.  He “came to believe” that a cabal of traitors in Truman’s State Department had deliberately ceded China to Mao ZeDong’s communists and later that Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated conscious agent of the communist conspiracy” (after all, he was chummy with Zhukov and gave him fishing tackle…). The Birch Society was at the peak of its influence in the mid-60s but then declined. By the 1970s, Welsh was seeing a “conspiracy behind the conspiracies” in the Bavarian Illuminati, founded in 1778 who were, according to him, the real puppet masters.

This was perhaps too wacky even for the most hardened rightest oddball but we can see that the more exotic elements in QAnon and all the rest of it are not just a recent phenomenon but have a long history/tradition in fevered minds on the American right.

I’d never heard of the Bavarian Illuminati before and had to check this on Wiki. The Illuminati apparently began as a small organisation that opposed superstition, obscurantism and abuse of state power among other things. They attracted intellectuals such as Goethe and Herder and had strong connections with Freemasonry for a time before they were suppressed by the Bavarian authorities.

And that was probably that except that the organisation has lived on in the minds of those attracted by conspiracy and mumbo jumbo.

This and my delving into the American right led me to think of the saying. “Those the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. Disturbed by not knowing the origin of a saying I like, I dive back into the info-swamp. And from Wiki, I learn that it had Greek antecedents but to Sophocles not Euripides as previously thought (Antigone: When a gods plan harm against a man, they first damage the mind of the man they are plotting against). There were other quotes from classical sources and mediaeval Latin, the Gods sometimes being rendered as Jupiter and later in Christian times as simply God.

The quote appears in English literature from the seventeenth century onwards, among other places in the Reverend Anderson Scott’s mid-nineteenth century series of lectures on Daniel, a Model for Young Men and by various writers from the American Longfellow to Somerset Maugham. I am attracted by the sound of Longfellow’s poem “The Masque of Pandora” and want to find it but before I do so, I catch sight of my watch and see that it is a remarkable 10.30…..

I haven’t said anything about Ukraine although there is a lot that could be said but I’ll save that for another occasion when I have plucked up enough courage to raise my head above the parapet.

The mirror of the Gods

I’ve found it difficult to write about anything else when we were seeing unpleasant images from Ukraine, which, even allowing for the fog of war and dishonesty of propaganda still provide evidence of much suffering and horror. But I’ve not wanted to write about Ukraine either as my voice is to some extent a dissenting one and passions are understandably running high now. But muteness doesn’t please me either so I’ve broken my informal rule about keeping political subjects to a modest minimum on my blog.

Anyway, now I’ve done that, I’ll turn to other areas of life. As my bedtime book, I’ve been reading “Mirror of the Gods” by Malcolm Bull, who at the time of writing was Head of Art History at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford. I have this book on my shelf for some time and have wanted to read it as it looked lush and attractive. It’s a very well written account of the reappearance of classical myths and motifs in renaissance art, sculpture and architecture. The first half is an account of the gradual discovery of statues etc. from the classical period, especially in Italy and the second deals with the treatment of various figures – Hercules, Jupiter, Venus, Diana, Bacchus, Apollo etc.

I’ll only remember a fraction of what I’ve read but hopefully it will make viewing renaissance art more rewarding. It’s a fascinating period – the change from art focusing on the Christian bible, martyred saints, the Virgin Mary, Jesus on the cross, sometimes lush and attractive but often denying the value of life on earth in favour of spiritual values. And, in the course of a relatively short period, art becomes filled with representations of pagan deities and myths, generously nude and anything but life-denying.

Of course, it can reflect changed purchasers of art from religious institutions to aristocrats adorning their properties. There is after all quite a lot of joie de vivre in Chaucer’s writings in the fourteenth century and there were probably not a few chaste holy folk with eyes upturned to heaven while naked folk were being portrayed in Bacchanalian revels. But it must still have represented quite a change in what was acceptable and how people thought.

Otherwise, I have been trying to sort out a large basket or box with family history papers. I would like to make it into a properly organised archive, user friendly for any future Kendalls who wish to throw light on their past.

I’ve collected these papers over many years with scribblings in any number of notebooks so they are in urgent need of systematic attention. My father is particularly interesting as he was old (55) when I was born and my grandparents on his side were both dead before the end of the nineteenth century (my grandfather died of sunstroke in Surrey while at a military shooting and marching competition in 1895). Even a very modest shuffle of my papers revealed a couple of new facts as well as the location of the place where my father (who was in the artillery) was injured in the First World War (near Lens in 1917). And details of his life post-war as a taxi driver in Herne Bay, Kent. He lost a leg in the war so I’m not sure how he could drive a car safely as I doubt whether he had a car with hand controls but it was probably before driving licences were compulsory.

I’ve just tried to ask Alexa about the year when driving licences became compulsory but, as I expected, she failed to help, telling me first that you need to be 17 to have a driving licence and then finding information about conscription to the Army. She’s anyway useful when I can’t remember what day it is but I don’t use her for anything else (I suspect she is not too hot on the definition of imperialism….).

Think of the golden days not long ago when we just talked about Covid

For once one of my projects, the study of imperialism, is spot on as far as events in the world are concerned; this cannot be said of my interest in the patron saint of translators, St Jerome, or in Dorset church architecture.

I’ve felt that imperialism was carelessly defined or rather that two definitions were applied and often mixed up – the traditional broader definition of a country or people exercising control over other countries, which covers the Roman Empire, the Mogul Empire, the British Empire regardless of their level of economic development and definitions based on imperialism being the highest stage of capitalism used by the Left (Lenin) but also, to some extent, by academic economists (Hobson).

I’ve felt on firm ground when referring to the UK or US as imperialist countries in the second narrower definition – countries where export of capital has become more important than export of goods, where income from investments abroad is substantial (compared with income from trade) and where there are large monopolies and oligopolies. And France and Germany, albeit with their particular histories, can be fitted into the same framework as junior partners (along with the UK) under US domination. But my eyes glaze over when talking about Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands – they are quite clearly not in the same league as the US but would we describe them as weaker imperialist countries or imperialist to some extent?

We probably have to accept that definitions are an aid in assisting us understand the world but that reality is always more complex and will often not slot in nicely with our definitions. We need to study each particular case, to develop the relevant metrics, to be able to make clear statements about particular countries.

This becomes even more complicated when we try to analyse Russia and China. I don’t believe that China is an imperialist country according to the narrower definition. But I am very aware of the weakness and incoherence of my arguments when I discuss this position. I want to read more so that I can convince myself by my arguments.

According to the narrower definition of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, imperialism is not a policy (like, for example, colonialism for a merchant-dominated society). It is driven by capital in search of profitable investment.

Thus the Nazi government of Germany before the Second World War had various motivations, not just economic,  for wanting to unpick the effects of the treaty of Versailles. However, deprived of colonies after WW1, in a world largely divided up and controlled by other imperialist countries, German capital was driven to turn to the east in search of profit. Viewed solely from the perspective of realpolitik, appeasement could have worked, in the short term, if the British government had been willing to allow the Germans a free hand in Eastern Europe. But in the long run, further clashes between rising German and declining British imperialism would have been inevitable, and Germany would then have been a much more powerful adversary. And that view became the majority view of the UK ruling class.

In the current situation, the Ukrainian government is understandably presenting their struggle against the Russians as being not just on their own behalf but for the sake of the whole of Europe. And that concessions to the Russians would be in the same category as the  Chamberlain government’s attempts to appease Nazi Germany, only emboldening the aggressor to continue further aggression elsewhere.

I don’t believe in this scenario.  The Russian government undoubtedly wants to unpick some of the effects of the weakness of Russia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to restore its influence in the area that was the Soviet Union, especially those areas with close historical links and similarities to Russia. This has increasingly brought Russia into conflict with the US and Nato, but I don’t think that we will see a further drive to the west. (unless the situation in Ukraine leads to a general European war) any more than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the spread of Soviet influence beyond Afghanistan. This is firstly because any Russian “victory” in Ukraine may very likely be a resource-draining quagmire but secondly because I do not believe that Russian capital is sufficiently advanced to seriously challenge US hegemony (unlike, potentially, German capital in its immediate area and China). While the Russian government and Russian companies may welcome easier access to the raw materials and agricultural products of the Ukraine; they are hardly likely to be driven to look to the west in search of higher profits (other than as rentier capitalists).

In other words, Russia is not a major (or perhaps even minor) imperialist country in the second narrower sense.

We are, however, seeing another step away from the “Pax Americana” which we have habituated ourselves with since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of US hegemony over Europe (it’s not, of course, been much of a “pax” outside Europe). In fact, peaceful relations between the competing imperialist powers have been the exception rather than the rule – we only need to think of the history of the twentieth century up to 1945. But sharpening economic crises have made the US fretful about the existing division of the world and perhaps more eager to penetrate areas where it has only been able to operate with difficulty (such as China, where the ruling bureaucracy, schooled in Stalinist ideas of peaceful coexistence with capitalism, has had a rude awakening from hopes that it could “cut a deal” with the West, and Russia). And the rising economic power of China, however, we define that society and economy, has also upset the existing relationships of power.

But also, closer to home, German reunification and the growing power of German capital in Europe has also “disturbed the peace”. I suspect that the Americans do not view lightly the prospect of closer relations between Russia and Germany and are eager to do what they can to prevent this (a not unimportant sub-plot in the ongoing struggle in Ukraine).

Whatever the outcome of the situation in Ukraine, there is probably a considerable risk of further turbulence upsetting the long period of pax Americana, not necessarily from the Russians as I have written above but from other imperialist countries, in particular, the Germans, beginning to chafe at their junior status in the American alliance.

The events in Ukraine are shocking and horrible and even closer at hand than the previous horrors of the break-up of Yugoslavia, but long-term peace is a forlorn hope given the nature of capitalism.