9 October 2019

Opium of the Masses

Bread and Circuses.....

Standing room only in St Michael's Church, Amberley, West Sussex, where we have gathered to give thanks for the life of a dear friend.

Let all the world in every corner sing,
My God and King!

I sing George Herbert's words as lustily as I can, given a certain rustiness and a catch in my throat.....  

But I am an infidel. I don't really fit in this congregation.  The Reverend Gerry Burgess speaks prayers, and though her words fly up, my soul remains below....

From the back of the nave, the Chancel Arch is magnificent, tall and bold, its chevrons catching the eye. It has stood for over 900 years, abiding the festivities and lamentations of generations of the faithful.

And of the faithless.

Some fifteen hundred years before the church of St Michael was raised, stone workers pieced together the Arch of Janus from spolia - bricks and shards and materials from earlier buildings, just as St Michael's in Amberley grew, using stones from all over (including Bath and Caen stones, as well as local flint) .  

Despite a bomb attack in 1993, this arch now stands beside the church of San Giorgio in Velabrio, by the Roman cattle market.  Although we commonly think of Janus, from whom we get the name for January, as having two faces, his full name was Ianus Quadrifons; and he sometimes faced in four directions, as here.

Italy is full of churches, abbeys, icons, memorials - the paraphernalia and the trappings of religion, from pre-christian times to the present day.  

Many of these are now in ruins.  Some, like Siena Cathedral, never achieved their aspirations (Il Duomo di Siena was never finished because the Black Death decimated the population, reducing the workforce and presumably the coffers to pay for materials and construction).

Many years ago, when preparing to write a book on monasteries, I travelled 100 kms south of Rome to visit the Abbey of Fossanova, one of the finest Cistercian Abbeys in Italy.  It was built in the twelfth century, and it was here that St Thomas Aquinas died, on March 7th, 1274.  

My visit, then, was disappointing.  On a grey day, the place was deserted.  Lead peeled from the octagonal campanile, and the stone walls seemed cold and unloved.  Worse still, the bar, in the tiny cluster of buildings around, was firmly closed, its sign swinging creakily like something from a Sergio Leone film.

The death of Thomas Aquinas didn't seem surprising.  Nor did it surprise me that there was no one there to mourn him.

But hey!  What a difference a lifetime makes? This September the place was open, and bright, and clean and smiling....  Voluminous German frauen brightened the scene, 

A brightly refurbished Madonna stood proud in the crossing, her gorgeous blue gown a jewel against the plain stone walls,

And the windows in the apse glowed splendidly through the tracery of the onyx alabaster slivers, letting in the light but protecting the faithful from the devilish cold and rain.....

The Friars Minor Conventual (Franciscans) have been in charge here, despite its Benedictine/Cistercian history, since 1936.  Today they are welcoming, and allow visitors at any time of day.  

(The bar, too, is excellent, and well stocked.....)

But not so very far away, at Casamari, the Benedictines close their doors in the middle of the day, 

And although this too is a seriously beautiful Cistercian Abbey, there is no welcome in a closed door, however fine that door may be....

And there is something more disturbing about Casamari than immediately meets the eye.

Not many miles up into the hills, near the town of Collepardo and at 825 metres above seas level, is the Carthusian Monastery of Trisulti. Founded as a Benedictine Abbey in 1000, it became a Charterhouse in 1204. Time and decline led eventually to it being taken over by the Cistercians from Casamari in 1947, where, as the Casamari website explains, The small group of monks, a simple priory directly dependent on the abbey of Casamari, gave life to the old charterhouse, welcoming tourists and, above all, offering their services to parish priests in the neighbourhood.

So far, so good.

However, religion is not just about God.  It is also about the people.  The populace....

[Please forgive this diversion into many words, but for a change I cannot put this into pictures.....]

Around Christmas (sic) of 1843, Karl Marx wrote, in his introduction to:

A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

So, hear this.....

The Dignitatis Humanae Institute is delighted to announce that the historic Abbey of Trisulti  has been formally handed over to the DHI, the final legal papers having been signed on 29 January 2019.....

And who, pray, are The Dignitatis Humanae Institute?

Perhaps this might help.....

The first major education and formation project that the DHI will be launching is the Academy for the Judaeo-Christian West, an initiative defending the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilisation based on the recognition that every single person without exception is made in the image and likeness of God. The defence of the Judaeo-Christian West over recent years has been significantly advanced by Stephen K. Bannon, whom the DHI is deeply honoured to welcome to its Board of Trustees.

You got it.

Steve Bannon.

Former executive chairman of Breitbart News. Also CEO of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and senior counsellor to the 45th president. Friend and supporter of Nigel Farage and Matteo Salvini.

And, for a while at least, the ancient charterhouse of Trisulti, so lovingly watched over by the Cistercian Benedictines of Casamari, was to be a training establishment for extreme right wing populists from all over Europe, and the world.

I quote from the Globe and Mail...

Welcome to the site for Steve Bannon’s new school of populism, formally called the Academy for the Judeo-Christian West. It is here that Mr. Bannon .... is building his next populist, nationalist, anti-establishment, Judeo-Christian propaganda machine.

While the school’s launch was planned before populist parties formed the Italian government, their victory has convinced Mr. Bannon that his concept is arriving at the right place at the right time. The school [is intended to be] a key component in spreading his hoped-for populist revolution across Europe, not just now, but for decades. His effort already includes The Movement, his Brussels group that provides data and advice to populist parties.....

I am an infidel.  I have no religion.  And I am naive when it comes to politics.  But there are times when it seems obvious that something ain't right. And the scent of wrong that exudes from Bannon and his associates makes me feel seriously disturbed.

On June 26th 2019, The Catholic Herald reported:

A senior churchman supportive of traditional Catholic liturgy and often cast as a leader of opposition to Pope Francis, has resigned the honorary presidency of a controversial think tank, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute founded by British conservative Benjamin Harnwell, and distanced himself from a major political agitator with strong ties to the Institute, the former chief strategist in the Trump administration, Steve Bannon.

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke issued a statement on Tuesday, explaining his reasons for becoming involved with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, outlining the extent of his involvement, and resigning the honorary presidency of it. “I have been involved with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute for some years because of its work to support Christians in public life who act with respect for the moral law and, therefore, promote the common good,” Burke said in the statement. 

“In recent time,” the statement continued, “the Institute has become more and more identified with the political program of Mr. [Steve] Bannon.” 

“While I have urged the Institute to return to its original purpose, it has not done so, as is evident in its involvement with this latest initiative of Mr. Bannon,” Cardinal Burke continued. “I have, therefore, effective immediately, terminated any relationship with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute.”

This statement came not long after the Italian government stated that it was revoking the agreement on leasing the abbey following non payment of rent and failure to work on the maintenance of the fabric of the site.  They also had come to the conclusion that the proposed activity was incompatible with the history and nature of the site.....

A conflict of ideologies.  A conflict between centuries of religious perseverance and a passing flurry of inflamed prejudices.

Populism becomes the opium of the people.....

However, this story has not yet finished.  Bannon, and his right arm man Benjamin Harnwell, a clone, if it were possible, of Dominic McKenzie Cummings, are actively holding on to the potential to turn the Abbey of Trisulti into a forcing house for extreme right wing populism.  Apparently they have already had 1500 applicants for places on their courses.....

One love (so shall it be in the end)
One heart (alright)
Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel alright
Let's get together and feel alright

As I stood in St Michael's Church, Amberley, singing, with many others, the hymn Teach Me, My God And King, by George Herbert, I did not feel hypocritical, although I have no faith.  I felt a sense of community and hope.  I wanted the sound of our voices to lift our souls for good, for love, whatever those words may mean.

That's how I grew up.  

And in that growing up I was influenced by others who had common cause to wish for good.

I envy those who have faith.  I wish I had something to live for, to die for.  I love the brilliant aspiration of church buildings, great and small.  I treasure the culture I was enveloped in as a child, sitting on my mother's knees in Portsmouth Cathedral during incomprehensible sermons.  I do not question the value others place on their adherence to religious practice or belief.

I marvel at the art and architecture of the masters who created cathedrals with all their features and details:

Not just in the cities of Western Europe, 

But also in the remote countryside,

And, across the world; please take this to include the temples, mosques and places of worship that all human beings have designed to help them understand the mystery of life, whether in ancient times or in the dark future....

But also understand me that the strong fumes of opium give cause to be wary. Morpheus (Please, sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams) does us no good, and the universal basis of consolation and justification derived from the controlling power of the curia should make us question what this new opium of the populace is trying to achieve.  

As I stood in St Michael's Church, Amberley, singing, with many others, the hymn Thine be the Glory by Edmond Budry, I did not feel uncomfortable, although I have no belief.  I felt a sense of love, and of sadness.  I wanted the sound of our voices to lift us up to an experience of heaven, whatever that may mean.

That's how I was brought up.  

And in that bringing up I was taught by some whose selflessness scattered fear and gloom.

Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son;
Endless is the victory thou o'er death hast won!


On August 17th this year, in response to a piece I sent concerning the Feast of the Assumption, my late friend John wrote:

I have never underestimated the power of prayer.

All the best,


All the best to you, John.....


Stop press: October 9th, 2019: Dario Franceschini, Italian Minister per i Beni culturali e il Turismo, confirmed that the concession granted in 2018 to Steve Bannon and his organisation has been revoked.

Stop Press 2!
MiBACT, annullata l’aggiudicazione della Certosa di Trisulti
Il Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali e per il turismo ha annullato il provvedimento di concessione della Certosa di Trisulti all’associazione Dignitas Humanae Institute.
Il provvedimento è giunto al termine del procedimento avviato nell’agosto 2019 dal quale è emerso che, contrariamente a quanto dichiarato al momento della candidatura, l’associazione non risultava in possesso dei requisiti richiesti dal bando per la concessione a privati di immobili del demanio culturale dello Stato.
Roma, 10 ottobre 2019

Which is definitively a No! to any activity of Bannon and his cronies in any Italian State Property.

3 October 2019

September Song

To every thing there is a season.....

They were beautiful, the last weeks of summer.  Santa Maria Maggiore glittered through clear September air.

Doors stood open, and walls glowed with the last of the summer heat.....

The countryside of Lazio, with its crumbling traces of past successes, delighted with still youthful greenery....

My little loved the warm springs under the clear sky, bathing in the volcanic waters of the Terme di Stigliano....

Hot, sun-dried chilli peppers caught the light in Antonio's kitchen, holding the warmth of the growing season,

The evenings were still warm enough for sitting out with Jack Daniels on the rocks, and for a a goodnight kiss from 107 year old Truman,

There's still time to every purpose under the heaven,

Time to keep silence, and a time to speak,

Then we turned north, dragging our heels to Tuscany,  gearing ourselves for the return to darkness and confusion. 

But it was yet clear, and fine, and from the summit of Monte Amiata I looked back to Lake Bolsena and the distant shape of the Monti Cimini that enclose Il Lago di Vico, with Monte Soratte spiking to the east,

Which view holds more than a third of my life, and more than half my heart.  

A time to weep,

It was hard to turn away, but we had friends to see, Corrado, now in his nineties, and  his wife Concetta, who was nervously awaiting treatment in hospital in Siena,

Then we climbed the hill to the farmhouse where Corrado was born, 

Where David and Sarah were preparing supper: fegatelli, and pollo, and salsicce, grilled outside on a wood fire. The smells and tastes recalled more than forty years of Tuscan suppers in this place....

And then the September sun subsided behind the young walnut tree that came after me to these wonderful views,

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

Thunder storms gathered in the night and rolled around the mountain, rain drumming on the tiles.  In the morning clouds clung to the slopes as we left, heading further north,

We passed the village of Seggiano, once archetypical of the area, but now home to many different tongues, 

We looked back at the twin peaks of Monte Amiata, beyond the five star Castello Di Velona Resort, Thermal SPA & Winery, which we used to visit as a ruin, ancient hand-written ledgers still lying among the shreds of crumbling chairs and tables....

We paid our respects to Charlemagne and those whose craft designed the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, one of the most  beautiful churches in Italy, where once rollers nested in the bell tower and the custodian would scoot down from Castelnuovo dell'Abate to open up, but where now coaches disgorge culture-hungry tourists, and youthful couples come to celebrate their silver weddings....

We took a break in the Caffe Fiaschetteria Italiana 1888 in Montalcino, sipping cappuccino amongst the display of the riches of Brunello, 

In Siena footsteps played on the cleverly laid stepping stones in the cathedral, 

While outside rainfall glistened on the paving, and the candy-striped tower of the cathedral was reflected in the puddles:

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;


With my little tucked up in the quiet of the Albergo Chiusarelli, I chanced the damp deserted alleys and found myself back in the Trattoria Dino, which has changed little since it opened in 1974....

Where Coniglio in umido (rabbit stew) went down very nicely with a little local red wine.....

that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.

The morning broke stormy, and our road to Pisa was washed by cloudbursts,

But we survived the flood, and lifted off away more or less on time, our September song sung to the last minute, our memories already fading, but our hearts full of friends..... 

All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I'll spend with you
These precious days I'll spend with you

September Song

Kurt Weill

26 September 2019

Roman Holiday

Ars longa, vita brevis.....

Not long back from Italy, immediately surrounded by the bitterness and division of Brexit, I am tempted to write about how ghastly our national circumstances are, and, having followed events closely this week, about just how unspeakable the current Prime Minister can be.....

But you know all that, so I won't even mention it...... We'll just go on holiday together instead.....

The eye of heaven watches over us all....

My little and I are here on us holidays.....

Visiting old friends, and old haunts.....

Remembering the old days, such as the time I had supper in Trastevere, near where I then lived, with Dale MacAdoo and three of Trilussa's old drinking buddies....

And, in case you don't do Roman dialect, Google translate renders the words on the slab above as:

While I read the usual newspaper 
spotted in the shade of a pajar 
or I see a pig and je say: - Goodbye, majale! 
I see a pacifier and I say: - Goodbye, donkey! 

Maybe 'beasts nun me will understand, 
but I feel Armenian satisfaction 
de can of things as they are 
without fear he ended up in prison.

[Somehow it's lacking a touch of exactitude, but you may get the gist.....You can see why he was so popular.....]

{see end of piece for a better translation}

Not far away, in the shadow of Michaelangelo et al in the Palazzo Farnese, a lady in white (with daring red shoes Powell and Pressburger style) does 'cello karaoke with Elgar....

Her vibrato makes me tremble as I remember the Hot Cross Nuns (of Santa Brigida) behind her.....

And not so far away, just across the slinky Tiber in the Villa Farnesina, there's a whole lot of boogie going on at the Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche (caught on Fresco by Raphael in around 1517)....

Folks certainly knew how to party in those days....

Not like now.  It's all a bit too much under the arches of the Teatro di Marcellus, where Iris Origo ended her days.....

But crossing the river via the Isola Tiberina, I note an Egret fishing the greenish waters by the flood detritus.  Just another piece of temporary flotsam in the waters of life, but not a sight I had seen before, so really something of a treat....

I love wandering through Rome.  Apart from any cultural or historical virtue, there is just the excitement of being.  Such a mix of sensory stimuli, from ice cream to empty arches.  Here the Arch of Janus, a clever quadrilateral, facing every which way, frames the basilica of San Giorgio in Velabro, 

In which my little admires the presence of God, in her own way......

Well there's no one else there.... 

Though it isn't far to the crowds, who fess and press to get into the Forum, and who like to compare themselves with the 21 metres of the Arch of Constantine, which has been successfully standing aloof for 1704 years....

Away from this imperial reminder of the power of the Johnson, nowever (sic), there is a spot on the Via Nomentana which Alexander the Brute might do well to consider.  Within the white pillared exterior and under the ornate ceilings of the Villa Torlonia,

And behind blind windows, 

There is a room whose dark furniture and silk drapery belies the fact that here Benighted Mussolini lay, pretending to work late with his office lights on, but really stewing in his discomforts, imagining himself enthroned in greatness, but actually exhaling fetid air from rotting bowels, unable to rest, having sold little shreds of his soul to the dominic who kept cumming through the darkness to trouble his dreams.....

Oh!  Oh!  It frights me to behold!  

But in the park there are gentle kindly faces to relieve my distress.....

So, all is well?


In the Casina delle Civette, the swallows are already leaving....

And in the Villa Ada, where armed guards wave me away from the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, shouting 'No Foto!' at me, I find the derelict Temple of Flora, a memorial to grander times, or a relic of riches no longer viable.

For a moment I think I see a serval draped over a branch, and my mind is daggered by the words, Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi......

Words which Archibald Colquhoun translated as: Everything must change so that everything can stay the same......

Later, on the terrace of the Mecenate Palace Hotel, as the sun goes down behind Santa Maria Maggiore, lighting my dry martini most delightfully, I think of Mon Dernier Soupir, the autobiography of Luis Buñuel.  

What kind of holiday would he have had in Rome?

For a start he would have made sure no one could get out of the basilica below me....

And for dessert he would have had a glass of red.....

Not a bad way to forget about everything.....

In the Shade of a Hay Rick

I read my paper, back propped against the hay
Here comes a hog, so I look up and say,
“Goodbye, Pig!” And then across the grass
here comes a donkey; I say, “Goodbye, ass!”

No way of telling if they’ve understood.
Whether they have or not, it does me good
to call things what they are without the dread
of having to go to jail for what I’ve said.

From Giove e le bestie, 1932, 
by Trilussa, Carlo Alberto Salustri 
(Rome, 26 October 1871 - 21 December 1950)

Translated by John Du Val

*    *    *    *

In Memoriam, John Davison


Teacher, mentor, friend