Monday, 28 September 2015

Welcome to the Great Unravelling

VW, eh? Who'd a thought it. All that German solidity and reliability and Protestant uprightness. Stop coughing at the back there! Of sorry, that's just the bad air, I thought you were being sarcastic.

You may not have been paying much attention to the unravelling of VW's environmental claims. You were probably distracted by footage of desperate refugees from Iraq and Syria fighting to get into places in Europe that you might remember people fighting to get out of. Or the lethargic cackhandedness of Europe's leaders as they failed to deal with this.

You may even have been too busy laughing as New Labour, one of Europe's Neoliberal cheerleaders, succumbed to the charms of an elderly, allotment-owning socialist. Or you may have bothered about none of these things, since you're too busy trying to earn the rent. News turns over quickly, and we all have to survive.

I just wonder if, amongst all this, you stopped long enough to to wonder at all the things we took for granted just a decade ago, crumbling into shreds like a decomposting compostable bag.

Who remembers the 00's, the decade that wasn't sure enough of itself to give itself a name? Well, unless you're under 10, all of you. Remember Tony Blair and his shiny shiny teeth. His glittering eyes. They were building shopping malls, back then. Tesco. It was no use arguing with Tesco, they were unstoppable. So was Tony. Now Tony's gone and everyone hates him. Tesco got caught fiddling the books; except corporations getting caught fiddling is so common now that you'd forgotten about that, already.

Everyone was crazy about house prices. It's no use blaming the rich, everyone I worked with had house-price frenzy, working out over their lunch-hour how they could cash in on the property market. The bank upped my credit card limit, without me asking, from £2,000, to £5,000. If you were poor, it was just because you weren't trying.

There was a war in Iraq, and a war in Afghanistan, and they were both going to usher in democracy. Also, this great new thing called the Euro, so you could walk through borders and carry on spending. It was going to bring peace and endless prosperity in Europe. If you were against it you were sad, old and tragic. Modernity was passing you by. You needed to get on, and get with it. We were all multicultural now: anyone who had doubts was a racist.

The whole racism thing was a bit complex, since we were bombing the crap out of muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Muslims wanted to bomb us, and we had to put up with all kinds of restrictions on our rights, because of those bad muslims. The bad bombing muslims were responsible, not us bombing the bad muslims. The bad muslims weren't the muslims that lived here, those were the good muslims, because we were non-racist and multicultural. If the good muslims had some bad muslim tendencies, the way to deal with them was to give them a grant, not to bomb them. Some of the bad bombing muslims, like Gaddafi and the Saud's, were actually honorary good muslims, because they were on our side, against the proper bad, bad muslims. If this seemed a little schzophrenic, it wasn't for you to say.

These kind of issues weren't for us, the little people. We had Tesco and house prices. You could buy your multicultural food prepackaged in Tesco and eat it in the patio you built when you topped up your mortgage. We weren't bad people. We knew about Global Warning, but we didn't worry too much, because the politicians were dealing with it, and anyway, we drove a nice clean VW with super-dooper low emissions.

Except, all these things were lies, weren't they? Tony was a psycho, those wars created organised psychopathy under the guise of Islam, and the Euro sent whole countries bankrupt. Property price mania buggered the economy. The shopping malls that looked so shiny and new look already, shabby and dated. And now the bad muslims, the ones over there as supposed to the ones over here, are coming here after all, and they just look sad and bedraggled, standing at the border crossing, clutching their blankets. And everyone is confused, because all the things they thought they had a handle on, they haven't.

It was a sort of opium dream, a decade of lies and delusions. It was weird and oppressive. What's amazing though is how solid it seemed at the time. All these things were unquestionable, they were reality. And now, how quickly it's all unravelling, like a badly knitted sweater that got caught on some wire.

It will go on unravelling, for a while, I think. All these things held each other up, and when you take one away, there's a gap, so you can see through, to the something else beyond. The something else beyond blows at the edges of the gap, like weather coming into a damaged building. Gradually, the gap gets bigger, and at last, the structure will no longer hold. This is how things fall apart, not with bangs or even whimpers or even glorious revolutions.

I don't mind. Whatever happens now, at least it might be real. Real things often aren't as shiny or as perfect as fake ones. But you know, they have undeniable advantages. Like, being real, and not fake.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

It's not over till the fat lady's carved

Last week I was lucky enough to meet this tiny yet voluptuous lady, who is 25,000 years old. At the time she was carved, Europe was deep in the Ice Age, and mammoths still walked the tundra.

What you can't see from the photograph is that she really is beautiful, lovingly and stunningly carved. There are other statues, of similar age, and similar type, in existence, but this one is jaw-droppingly good. Every roll of flesh is sinuously and sensuously curved, full of comfort in power. If you put it in a room of 20th century sculpture, it would still stand out as a piece of genius amongst the other, lesser works.

The Venus of Willendorf is held in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, rather than in the art museum, which I found odd. The two museums are opposite each other. In between is a statue of Empress Maria Theresa, the Hapsburg Empress who ruled over Austria, and about half of Europe besides, from 1740 to 1780. In the Art Museum opposite, you can see all the artistic and cultural glories the Hapsburgs collected, from paintings by Rubens to clocks and jewelled automata.

Maria Theresa rebuilt the massive Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, the seat of Hapsburg power. It is an enormous construction, oozing power and luxury, a monument to the height of European civilisation before modernity, in the shape of the industrial revolution, and often violent movements towards democracy, tore it apart. Opulent, overwhelming, over-decorated, as complacent as it is brilliant, the palace in the end witnessed the last death throes of the world it ruled.

The Venus of Willendorf is tiny, and the Palace of Schoenbrunn is huge, yet they have more than one thing in common. The Venus has been described as a fertility goddess, but I couldn't help wondering why it should be an image of anyone more imaginary than the flesh and and blood empress. Maria Theresa had 16 children, and farmed them out in marriage to the royal families of Europe, to secure her empire's power. The most famous of them, Marie Antoinette, lost her head in the French Revolution.

I wonder if, were we to lose the records of 18th-century Europe, and in a few millennia dig up the statue of Maria-Theresa, whether we wouldn't call her a fertility goddess too. What if, like Maria-Theresa, the Venus too held very real political sway above the fertile Danube Valley?

But that is not the only thing they have in common. In each monument, there is a glimpse of something at its height and its apogee, a moment of brilliance and of confidence. Both have taken time, and a great deal of thought, and talent, to arrive at that place. They are not the product of humans searching perilously for food or safety or shelter. They are a statement of presence: here I am. Here we are, not preoccupied with the necessities of survival, but instead, proving that we have conquered all that. We are rich enough to get damn fat.

Maria Theresa presided over a court that fed on all the inventions of the enlightenment: ideas, culture and music, and a Europe that was about to gather itself into the convulsions of industry, and of violent demands for equality. It would never look back. The carver of the Venus of Willendorf, whether they knew it or not, lived in a time in which humanity gathered itself to move out of nomadism, and towards the thing we call civilisation. In each of these objects there is a spark, as if a point of light illuminates the next turn in the maze.

Of course, both these civilisations are gone. Nobody knows who the Willendorf Venus was, if she was anyone at all, if her many children gave her sway over the neighbouring tribes of Europe, if she prospered in peace, or in war. In 1914, Maria-Theresa's great grandson Franz Josef, the last, elderly Emperor of Austria - bereaved of his wife and children, and living more or less or in one convenient room of the mile-wide palace - finally signed the declaration that brought about World War One.

Vienna is now a charming backwater, full of memories and beautiful buildings. It did not slide gracefully into decline. Much the brilliance, intellectual, cultural, and artistic, that had outlived the Empire was murdered, destroyed and thrown into exile by the horrors of Nazism.

Looking at the evidence of these horrors, it easy to wonder if a plunge into darkness must follow the spark, as inevitably as night follows day. Despite this, I can't help feeling that at each little spark, we move forward, somehow.

I am fairly sure these sparks happen regularly, in the long haul of history, but never in the same place, or quite the same way. I wonder if anyone really knows, or notices, at the time, what they're witnessing. Do they feel changed? Did the person who carved that lady out of rock look at their finished work, and think 'we will never go back from here?' Or did they just get on with the next thing in hand, and wonder what might be for dinner?

As for myself, whether I live in a spark, or a horrible slide into the abyss, I have absolutely no idea.